30 April

Suggested Readings

Following is a reading list of our favorite intercultural fiction books.

by J. M. Coetzee (Penguin Books, 1999, 2008) Reviewed by James E. Leck

This is the story of a South African English professor David Lurie who refuses to take the necessary steps prescribed by a committee to save his job after seducing a student. Lurie moves to rural Eastern Cape to live with his daughter, Lucy, where he assists her at her kennel and on her small farm. Lucy’s interactions with neighbors, the kennel animals, and a tragic event open Lurie’s eyes to a world beyond his teaching and obsessions, and expose him to the way of post-apartheid South Africa, or at least a slice of it. Aspects of rural White and Black cultures are explored as they react to one another in the light of the radical transitions of power and social standing. Coetzee is a Nobel Laureate and this book proves why. The writing is spare and revealing. The reader experiences South Africa’s rural life and the struggles that are still at play more than fifteen years after the end of apartheid. The story includes some violence that may be disturbing.

Husband, Lover, Holy Man: An Intercultural Comedy
by K. B. Rao (Intercultural Press, 1992) Reviewed by James E. Leck

This is a wordy, but fun story of an Indian scholar who is given a scholarship to a college in the U.S. When he fails to complete his master’s degree and returns to India, he pursues some rather novel schemes that will allow him to return. His wife attempts to expose him. The writing, the cultural interactions, and characters are at once enjoyable and telling. While this comedy remains close to the surface of cultural understanding, it can be a useful starting point for thinking about family, relationships and the need for possessions in two different cultures.

Interpreter of Maladies
by Jhumpa Lahiri (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000) Reviewed by James E. Leck

Jumpha Lahiri’s writing, like J. M. Coetzee’s, is spare and vivid. This is a collection of short stories set in the U.S. and India. Most are about immigrants or visitors, yet Lahiri does not focus on seeing the opposite culture through the eyes of the “other”; the culture and the cultural clashes are there, but as organic parts of human situations.

Words Without Borders: The World Through the Eyes of Writers
An anthology of twenty-eight works of literature from 20 countries never before published in English.
(Anchor Books, a division of Random House, 2007) Reviewed by James E. Leck

Each piece in this collection of short stories, essays and excerpts from novels was chosen by well-known authors to introduce us to writers who have not yet been published in English. The story lines vary dramatically, but most are set within the writer’s home country and shed a fascinating light on their cultures in prose written primarily for readers from their home. Words Without Borders is also an online magazine of international literature. It includes short stories, book reviews, interviews, and resources for educators. It can be found online at: www.wordswithoutborders.org.

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears
by Dinaw Mengestu (Riverhead Books, 2007) Reviewed by Nancy E. Young

This is a serious book that moves slowly and with a detailed look at the experience of an Ethiopian immigrant to the U.S. Sepha Stephanos lives in Washington, D.C. where he survives in very tight economic conditions as he manages a small grocery store in a poor African-American neighborhood. The story includes the journeys of two fellow immigrants, as well as a friendship he makes with a White woman and her daughter who move into the neighborhood. Race, class, and the immigrant experience are examined in the isolated and difficult life of one man.

The Last Chinese Chef
by Nicole Mones (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007) Reviewed by Nancy E. Young

This novel is a recipe for fascinating reading that follows a reluctant traveler, Maggie McElroy. The plot involves her personal reasons for going to China, to respond to a paternity suit filed against her dead husband. Since already making the trip, she adds an assignment to profile a rising chef, in her role as a food writer. The chef is Sam Liang, an Asian-American who returned to China to immerse in his family’s strong reputation as leading chefs. Blending historical events and ancient writings, with a dash of the author’s own experience doing business in China, and stirring in the salient role of food in culture leaves the reader with the satisfied feeling of having eaten a well prepared and nourishing meal.

The English American
by Alison Larkin (Simon & Schuster, 2008) Reviewed by Nancy E. Young

This is fun exploration of cultural differences between the British and U.S. Americans. The plot focuses on Pippa Dunn, who was adopted and raised in Britain. As an adult, she reunites with her birth parents who are from the southern U.S. Pippa literally and metaphorically moves back and forth between these two cultures and families as she forges her identity to a new level. The writer is a comedian and this book is a good escape from the seriousness of the world.

The White Mary
by Kira Salak (Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2008) Reviewed by Nancy E. Young

Kira Salak is an adventurer, writer, journalist, and more. After previously writing non-fiction, she shares some glimpses into her lifestyle through her first fiction book, The White Mary. Salak travels alone to remote places, where, like the protagonist, she is often the first White woman to be in the region. In real life, she was the first White woman to traverse Papau New Guinea. In fiction, journalist Marika Vecera travels from the war-torn Congo to Papau New Guinea. Marika is a young U.S. American journalist who covers genocide and war with a deep commitment to truth and an abandon of her personal safety. She sets out on a personal quest to resolve the mystery surrounding the reputed death of an icon in the field. Through her trek in Papau New Guinea, questions are raised as to what is knowledge, what is truth, what is civilized as cultures collide. This book contains intense and graphic violence (comparable to The Kite Runner) and challenges the reader long after the cover is closed.


We each selected one non-fiction book that we consider a must read.

36 Views of Mount Fuji, On Finding Myself in Japan
by Cathy N. Davidson (Plume/Penguin Books, 1983) Reviewed by Nancy E. Young

This nonfiction book about Japan reads like a collection of short stories. Cathy Davidson writes in a very personal yet highly observational style about the life she finds in Japan – and how she finds herself in Japan. She travels to Japan on four occasions, where she teaches English at a women’s university. Nothing is too large or too small to escape her observation, whether it’s about the silence in Japan, the role of the host and guest, or what it means to be typical, she brings sympathy and empathy to her writing. Her insight into her own changes and reactions to what she experiences in Japan are fodder for sensitive thought and conversation beyond this book.

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood
by Alexandra Fuller (Random House, 2001) Reviewed by James E. Leck

This is the story of a woman whose British family brought her to southern Africa at the age of three. It is a slice of Africa as seen, at once, from the perspective of the outsiders and from a girl (and later, young woman) who bonded with the continent. Though it focuses on Rhodesia during that country’s civil war, the setting moves to Malawi then Zambia as Fuller’s family finds new places to call home. The thread of the story, told with humor and insight, is more about her difficult family than about the countries and cultures in which she lives. Yet, those places shape the story as much as they shape the family and Fuller herself.