Reading With An Accent: Foreign Novels

My wife and I enjoy watching Jeopardy, and one night recently the current phenom contestant correctly answered a question relating to the Russian novel Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev. Coincidentally I came across that book the next day here at the library. When I mentioned this to my wife she asked what it was about. I told her “nihilism” and she is now reading it. In solidarity I grabbed for myself a Polish novel called In Red, by Magdalena Tulli  Since I haven’t finished it yet I can’t tell you much about it, but I can tell you about some other foreign books I have read (and haven’t previously blogged about).

Book sculpture in Berlin.
Book sculpture in Berlin.

There are a few things I like in particular about foreign books. They often have a certain feel to them, a difference in perspective than what we are used to. This is similar to what you see in many foreign films. An example of this is in the great movie Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Near the end Michelle Yeoh’s character (and I am quite the Michelle Yeoh fan) rides off to the village in search of the antidote for the poisoned Chow Yun-fat. Sitting there in the theater my first thought was that of course she would succeed in obtaining it. That is how movies work. But then I remembered that I wasn’t watching a Hollywood blockbuster, and that the ending was actually in doubt, which made the film’s conclusion that much more riveting.

I also enjoy the settings in these books. Not only are the cultures different, but so is the food and the money and other things. You can learn a lot of new things from them. But that isn’t the real reason I am talking about them. The real reason is that they are good books. Next time you are in the mood to read something different, consider giving one of these a try.

엄마를 부탁해 (Please Look After Mom) by Kyung-sook Shin, translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim. This award winning book, which has sold over two million copies worldwide, tells the story of a Korean family searching for their mother who disappeared on a Seoul subway platform. Switching between the viewpoints of the adult children and of the mother’s (via flashbacks) it is a story of coming to terms with loss, and recognizing things you should have appreciated better. An insightful and moving book.

Display of Andrzej Sapowski books
It might be a bit harder to find Andrzej Sapowski books around here. In Poland he gets a whole display to himself.

オール・ユー・ニード・イズ・キル (All You Need Is Kill) by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, translated from the Japanese by Alexander O. Smith. I saw the Hollywood blockbuster movie version first, titled Edge of Tomorrow and starring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt. The movie exceeded my expectations, so I decided to read the book. Both versions tell the same basic story, with the lead character being Japanese in the book and American in the movie. This is a tale of war, with an invasion of time-shifting aliens threatening the Earth, and our hero being of the unexpected type. Time travel stories are tricky, but this book handles it well, and is exciting and balanced. Not too surprisingly, the movie has a different ending, although I found both satisfying enough. There is also a graphic novel version.

Damage by Jacqueline Harte . Hey, the United Kingdom is a foreign country to me, so that counts, and Harte was Irish. Told through the narration of the unnamed lead character, this is a sordid tale. A well respected doctor goes into politics, and seems to be living the life, with a lovely wife and two beautiful and successful grown children. When his son starts seeing a mysterious older woman, he himself enters into an affair with her, and to no one’s surprise disaster ensues. Harte lets us know right away that this is not a happy ending story, and we are left to follow along helplessly, awaiting the fate that is coming. Both the different political system and viewpoints in Britain and the age of the book (published in 1991) give this novel that foreign feeling.

Book Off store
Book Off is Japan’s largest used bookstore chain.

みずうみ (The Lake) by Banana Yoshimoto, translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich. Yoshimoto’s Kitchen is an all time favorite of mine, and while The Lake may not quite be its equal it is still a good read. On one level this is a story of loss, as protagonist Chihiro deals with the death of her mother. On another level it is very eerie, as Chihiro becomes involved with a man who years ago was involved with a strange cult. As usual Yoshimoto brings her characters vividly to life, making even the mundane aspects of their lives pop off the page, which makes the supernatural underpinnings that much spookier.

Människohamn (Harbor) by John Ajvide Lindqvist, translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy. This one has similarities to The Lake, with personal tragedies, a solid realistic setting, and a background of paranormal, but is also completely different. Lindqvist tells a chilling tale (get it? Chilling? Set in Sweden?) that starts when Anders and Cecilia take their six year old daughter across the ice to visit a lighthouse, only to have the girl vanish seemingly into thin air. Later Anders, now divorced and a drinker, returns to the area to look for clues. He finds many a creepy mystery in the town. Something odd has been happening here for years, something dark and perhaps not of this world. Harbor mixes the ordinary, including many flashbacks to an 80s childhood (hope you like The Smiths) with hints of the paranormal, making for quite the interesting tale.

North Korean bookstore.
North Korean’s dig green covers, apparently.

The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia. Technically this is not a foreign novel. It was written in English by an American author. But it still fits in very nicely with the other books on this list. Plascencia was born in Mexico before moving to the US as a boy, and that Latino culture fills much of this book. It also has that “different” feel, as this is a work of experimental fiction. The plot revolves around Federico de la Fe and his war against the planet Saturn. The novel plot (pun again intended) is accentuated by the physical form of the book, with text laid out in different ways, some areas blacked out, and one character’s name literally cut out of the book. Kudos to my wife for finding this brilliant book and making me read it.

book and coffee

Please share with me what foreign novels you recommend, and if you need more here are ones I’ve blogged about before:

Seta (Silk) by Alessandro Baricco, translated from the Italian by Guido Waldman. (It’s Random Book Day!)

Låt den rätte komma in (Let The Right One In) by John Ajvide Lindqvist, translated from the Swedish by Ebba Segerberg. (19 Scary Books for Any Horror Mood)

キッチン (Kitchen) by Banana Yoshimoto, translated from the Japanese by Megan Backus. (Strange on Our Shelves)

The Passion by Jeanette Winterson (English). (It’s Random Book Day!)

Män som hatar kvinnor (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) by Stieg Larsson, translated from the Swedish by Reg Keeland. (Dark Fiction: 5 Things To Read After Gone Girl)

In The Woods by Tana French (Irish). (Dark Fiction: 5 Things To Read After Gone Girl)


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