19 July 2016

top ten tuesday: ten books set outside the US.

This week's Top Ten Tuesday—hosted as always by The Broke and the Bookish—is about books set outside the United States. To be true to the prompt I've only listed things that are set in real countries in the real world, and I've left out books set in Britain (I read so much stuff set in Britain). I'm also trying to give a slight preference to Things I've Read Recently, Novels In Translation, Non-Western Countries (Yes I Hate That Term But What Can You Do), and Things You Probably Haven't Read. Also the list is more than half female, so!

One: Joann Sfar, The Rabbi's Cat, trans. Alexis Siegel & Anjali Singh. Algeria. This is a French graphic novel capturing one man's struggle to answer the age-old question, Is my talking cat Jewish? It’s set in the 1920s, primarily in Algiers though there are sections set in Paris. In the sequel, The Rabbi’s Cat 2, the Rabbi and his cat travel by land to Ethiopia. (They briefly meet Tin-Tin while they're passing through the Congo, and they don't think much of him. Get wrecked, Hergé.) A masterpiece of the form, and quite good fun to boot.

Two: The Housekeeper and the Professor, Yõko Ogawa, trans. Stephen Snyder. Japan. Very short indeed, and well-worth reading if you’re interested in issues of memory and/or people who feel too many things about math and/or Japanese baseball teams. It’s rather light, but I enjoyed it immensely—sort of gentle and domestic, a lovely study of cross-generational friendship.

Three: The Core of the Sun, Johanna Sinisalo, trans. Lola Rogers. Finland. Guys. If you have to read just one book off this list, you have to make it be this. Published in Finland in 2013, it only came out in Anglophone markets this year. It’s science fiction or (more precisely) a genre they’re calling the Finnish Weird, which seems to be analogous to what Anglophone SF writers call the New Weird. It’s set in Finland 2017, in a misogynistic dystopia that’s a bit like The Handmaid’s Tale if Maggie Atwood were weirder and smarter. (Is it misogynistic of me to put down Margaret Atwood with a diminutive of her name? I respect you, Ms. Atwood, except for The Penelopiad!) The protagonist, V, fairly leaps off the page; she’s a depressive synesthete with a scientific mind and a capsaicin addiction—not a word of exaggeration, there, and I sometimes (often) think that one of the major signifiers of feminist fiction ought to be us allowing ourselves to write unrepentantly strange women. I’m sick of everywomen; I want to see us—female writers—let our girls be weird. V is crazy and hungry and brilliant and scared and strange; she’s got enormous appetites and a mind like a scalpel, and I love her to death. This book is one of the best things I’ve read this year.

Four: The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, Nancy Farmer. Zimbabwe. Looking through my list of books for this year, I thought about including Farmer's The House of the Scorpion, which is set in a future Mexico. I was on the point of adding it when I remembered this one, which I think is much better. It's an old favorite of mine, a delightful children's novel set in Zimbabwe in 2194.

Five: Feeling Sorry for Celia, Jaclyn Moriarty. Australia. Is it just me or is Australian YA weirdly reliable? And "reliable" really is the word: I wouldn't say it's all terrific, but I don't think I've ever read a really bad Australian YA novel. And this one is genuinely terrific, top-quality feel-good fun. The sequels, The Year of Secret Assignments, The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie, and The Ghosts of Ashbury High, only get better. (Although if you're an overachieving perfectionist with self-worth issues [hi] Bindy Mackenzie can seem decidedly less feel-good. I love it, but I have trouble re-reading it sometimes because there are lines that hit altogether too close to home.)

Six: How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, Sarah Glidden. Israel. It's the only non-fiction on my list, Glidden's graphic memoir of her Birthright trip. Really interesting and like The Rabbi's Cat it should be fairly accessible to people who don't read many comics.

Seven: Calvin, Martine Leavitt. Canada. More YA; this one's a short novel about a schizophrenic teen obsessed with Bill Watterson. I stayed up way too late to find out how it ended, and it was entirely worth it.

Eight: The Melancholy of Mechagirl, Catherynne M. Valente. Japan. A collection of Valente's Japan-themed short stories and poetry, all SF and fantasy. Almost all of them are set in Japan—one or two are US set but only one or two. I liked some of them better than others, and certain pieces here are more than a little confusing, but I've always enjoyed Valente as a stylist and overall this book was a delight. One of these stories was also featured in an anthology called The Future Is Japanese from the same press—the anthology's had mixed reviews, but I'm probably going to pick it up from StoryBundle. Also: writing this I realize that The Future Is Japanese features quite a few non-Japanese authors, and I'd love to read some SF/F by actual Japanese people. Please advise—there are some Japanese authors in the bundle I linked, but I'd love to hear other recommendations!

Nine: Sophie's World, Jostein Gaarder, trans. Paulette Moller. Norway. A novel about a fourteen-year-old girl taking a life-changing correspondence course about the history of philosophy. It’s a cross between a philosophy textbook, Alice in Wonderland, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. It’s a bit of a doorstopper, so I don’t reread it often, but it’s a mind-bender and well-worth your time.

Ten: Boxers & Saints, Gene Luen Yang. China. A weird and excellent two-volume graphic novel about the Boxer Rebellion, by this year's LOC Ambassador for Young People's Literature. I've not read a single book by Yang that wasn't excellent—I've got a particular fondness for The Shadow Hero—but as far as I recall the others are all American-set.


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