2013 International Book Club Selections:
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (Winner of Man Booker Prize 2008), c. 2008, 304 pages, fiction, India.
This powerful novel is about corruption and injustice in modern India. “Balram Halwai is a complicated man. Servant. Philosopher. Entrepreneur. Murderer. Over the course of seven nights, Balram tells us the terrible and transfixing story of how he came to be a success in life- having nothing but his own wits to help him along. And with a charisma as undeniable as it is unexpected, Balram teaches us that religion doesn’t create virtue, and money doesn’t solve every problem- but decency can still be found in a corrupt world, and you can get what you want out of life if you eavesdrop on the right conversations. Amoral, irreverent, deeply endearing, and utterly contemporary, this novel is an international sensation- and a startling, provocative debut.
Purge by Sofi Oksanen, c. 2010, 320 pages, fiction, Finland-Estonia.
This is a novel by an award-winning Finnish contemporary writer. When Aliide Truu, an older woman living alone in the Estonian countryside, finds a disheveled girl huddled in her front yard, she suppresses her misgivings and offers her shelter. Zara is a young sex-trafficking victim on the run from her captors, but a photo she carries with her soon makes it clear that her arrival at Aliide’s home is no coincidence. Survivors both, Aliide and Zara engage in a complex arithmetic of suspicion and revelation to distill each other’s motives; gradually, their stories emerge, the culmination of a tragic family drama of rivalry, lust, and loss that played out during the worst years of Estonia’s Soviet occupation.
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson , c. 2010, 384 pgs, fiction, England.
In her witty and wise debut novel, Helen Simonson introduces the unforgettable character of the widower Major Ernest Pettigrew. The Major epitomizes the Englishman with the "stiff upper lip," who clings to traditional values and has tried (in vain) to pass these along to his yuppie son. Pettigrew fights to keep his greedy relatives from selling a valuable family heirloom--a pair of hunting rifles that symbolizes much of what he stands for, or at least what he thinks he does. Along the way the embattled hero discovers an unexpected ally and source of consolation in his neighbor, the Pakistani shopkeeper Jasmina Ali. On the surface, Pettigrew’s and Ali's backgrounds and life experiences couldn't be more different, but they discover that they have the most important things in common. This wry, yet optimistic comedy of manners with a romantic twist will appeal to grown-up readers of both sexes.
The Old Gringo, by Carlos Fuentes (Nobel Prize in literature 2012). c. 1985 and 2007, in paperback, 230 pages, fiction, Mexico.
Fuentes, one of Mexico's leading novelists presents a lyrical and philosophical tale about the times of Pancho Villa and the 1910 Revolution in Mexico. The old gringo of the title is a historical figure, Ambrose Bierce, an American journalist who disappeared into Mexico to die. He joins the troops of the young revolutionary Tomas Arroyo, one of Villa's generals, who, as a "child of misfortune" born out of wedlock, was trapped on the hacienda of his birth and is now trapped by the revolution. Doomed never to understand each other, the two protagonists nevertheless give us an understanding of their cultural differences. Both the old gringo and the young revolutionary compete for the love of an American teacher, Harriet Winslow, who had come to Mexico to tutor the children of the former hacienda. Fuentes examines the borders between men and women, dreams and reality, Mexico and the United States. The tempestuous intimacy between governess and general and the complex relationship each has with the old gringo reflect the links and contradictions between our countries. A novel to be savored.
Genghis Kahn and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford , c. 2005, 352 pgs. non-fiction, Asia.
The Mongol army led by Genghis Khan subjugated more lands and people in 25 years than the Romans did in 400. In nearly every country the Mongols conquered, they brought an unprecedented rise in cultural communication, expanded trade, and a blossoming of civilization. Vastly more progressive than his European or Asian counterparts, Genghis Khan abolished torture, granted universal religious freedom, smashed feudal systems of aristocratic privilege, encouraged free trade, developed a paper currency, spread knowledge from different cultures and observed diplomatic immunity. From the story of his rise through the tribal culture to the explosion of civilization that the Mongol Empire unleashed, this brilliant work of revisionist history is nothing less than the epic story of how the modern world was made.
The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb , c. 2012, 320 pages, fiction, Vietnam.
Every morning in Hanoi, people line up to breakfast on a bowl of pho, traditional noodle soup, made by Old Man Hung. An itinerant soup vendor living in a shantytown, Hung once owned a café where a group of dissident artists and intellectuals called the Beauty of Humanity Movement met until the Communists shut it down. If Hung is a link to Vietnam’s past, Tu, the grandson of one of the artists, is a link to its future. It is Tu’s job as a tour guide to show the sites of Hanoi to visitors from the West. One of these is Maggie, a Vietnamese American art curator who has come to Hanoi to catalog the art collection of the refurbished Hotel Metropole. She also hopes to learn something about her father, an artist, who stayed behind when Maggie and her mother fled to the U.S. Through the very different perspectives of these three, Gibb fluidly takes the reader from the bitter years of war to the Hanoi that has emerged in the reform era, which, despite all its modernization, is still a mystery to many of us.
Burnt Shadows, by Kamila Shamsie, c. 2009, in paperback, 384 pages, fiction, Japan, India, Pakistan.
Shamsie's moving novel bridges the bombing of Nagasaki in 1945 to post-9/11 New York. The heart of the tale begins with the sharing of one language and culture with another. Hiroko Tanaka, a young survivor of the bombing of Nagasaki, cannot find an answer to the question that haunts her: After Hiroshima, why a second bomb? Putting human faces on those affected, Shamsie draws a direct line between the intimate details of personal lives and the sweep of history. Surviving Nagasaki with the images of three birds burned into her back, Hiroko has lost the man she loves, Konrad Weiss. Two years later, Hiroko travels to India to meet Konrad's family, the Burtons, and also her future husband, Sajjad Ashraf. As the British depart India on the cusp of Partition, violence ensues between Hindus and Muslims. Living in Pakistan with Sajjad, Hiroko's family remains inextricably linked with the Burton's through circumstance, future generations experiencing the reverberations of those connections. A novel of wonderfully nuanced characters, Shamsie's novel takes us through crucial moments in world politics, captivating us with great love stories and wonderful descriptions of customs, foods and family.
The Baker’s Daughter by Sarah McCoy, August 14, 2012, 304 pages, fiction, Germany.
In 1945, Elsie Schmidt is a naive teenager, as eager for her first sip of champagne as she is for her first kiss. She and her family have been protected from the worst of the terror and desperation overtaking her country by a high-ranking Nazi who wishes to marry her. So when an escaped Jewish boy arrives on Elsie’s doorstep on Christmas Eve, Elsie understands that opening the door would put all she loves in danger. Sixty years later, in El Paso, Texas, Reba Adams is trying to file a feel-good Christmas piece for the local magazine, and she sits down with the owner of Elsie's German Bakery for what she expects will be an easy interview. But Reba finds herself returning to the bakery again and again, anxious to find the heart of the story--a story that resonates with her own turbulent past. For Elsie, Reba’s questions are a stinging reminder of that last bleak year of WWII. As the two women's lives become intertwined, both are forced to confront the uncomfortable truths of the past and seek out the courage to forgive.
Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin, c. 2011, 272 pages, fiction, South Korea. MAN ASIAN LITERARY PRIZE WINNER
Please Look After Mom is the story of a mother, and her family’s search for her after she goes missing in a crowded train station, told through four richly imagined voices: her daughter’s, her oldest son’s, her husband’s, and finally her own. Each chapter adds a layer to the story’s depth and complexity, until we are left with an indelible portrait of a woman whose entire identity, despite her secret desires, is tied up in her children and the heartbreaking loss that is felt when family bonds loosen over time.