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 WE invite you to take a special journey with us, reading one book from every country in the world. One book obviously can’t begin to reveal an entire country or culture. So we invite you to think of it simply as a rich “appetizer” that leaves a memorable taste in your mouth. Perhaps it will lead to a 2nd or 3rd taste but, if not, we hope to choose books that will make the first taste an enriching experience.  

     Sadly, we’ve already been disappointed too many times in this project by “modern classics” that are far from classic and “old” before you finish their banal pages. Thus, we’ve freely sought out books from earlier times, not only because they’ve stood the test of time, but because they honor both the beauty of words and mankind’s ability to improve.  In addition, books (new or old) that turned out to be drier than melba toast we’ve omitted from the list below.    

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     P.S.  We’ve largely used two sources to find good, secondhand books. The vast majority of the books we’ve bought have been under $4, including shipping.

     BookFinder

     AbeBooks

     We will be regularly adding to the book list below.


CATEGORY I:  Must Reads 

• FRANCE:  Cyrano de Bergerac.  Edmond Rostand.  |  Forget the movie.  This writer was meant to be read (despite this being a play).  This is what writing should be. You will laugh until you cry, and cry at the beauty of thoughts carried over continents and centuries by words.

• GERMANY:  The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.  John Boyne.  |  While this book is fictional,  it is based, in part, on a true story.  It is simply an unforgettable work by a very gifted writer.  The words pull you along such that you cannot flip the pages fast enough.  And all the while you are conscious of the fact that you are being allowed to think. What is remarkable is that this has been achieved with the lightest touch. It is a story told many times (the story of life on “either side” of a prison came during the holocaust)—and yet this is a whole new story whose love and innocence do not allow us to cave in to despair, but allow us to live above it, even as the two hero boys of the book did.  (This is a case where the book is far superior to the movie.)  PLEASE NOTE:  We will be adding a beautiful, non-war book about Germany soon.

• RUSSIA:  A Gentleman in Moscow. Amor Towles  |  Few books come close to capturing all that is Russia and Russian better than this modern work of historical fiction. The story follows the life of Count Alexander Rostov whose love of life—that is, his Russianness—masters the new communist powers. The essence of the novel is summed up in one sentence, delightfully, creatively, and humorously depicted page after page: “If a man does not master his circum- stances, he is bound to be mastered by them.”

• YEMEN:  A Winter in Arabia: A journey through Yeman. Freya Stark  |  Called, in turns, the “Poet of Travel,” and the “Dame of Travel,” Freya Stark is in a league of her own.  This memoir of her journey through Yemen is rich, witty, direct, gripping—and poetic.  Yet, she also manages to “speak plainly” about cultural differences without an ounce of ill will.   “No” was not in her vocabulary—and risk? She considered it “the salt and sugar of life”.  She loved mankind and refused to be at odds with anyone, anywhere. She had an amazing ability to live with charity of spirit, rather than judgment. This is simply a must read. NOTE: When Freya was 88, a British film crew filmed her journey high up into the mountains of Nepal.  Watch here.


CATEGORY II:  Good Reads

• INDIA:  The Blue Umbrella.  Ruskin Bond.  |  From the land that could produce a Gandhi, and acclaimed historical novels such as E.M. Forster’s memorable Passage to India, we offer a short story by India’s beloved Ruskin Bond. His stories are all drawn from life and from an insatiable interest in watching good push up and grow despite the harsh climate of human history and the cold winds of a caste system. Another of his truly great and memorable stories (which can be found online) is, The Woman on Platform 8.   

• ISRAEL:  The Source.  James A. Michener.  |  This is a very long read.  But few people can open the understanding of a people and culture like Michener.  Chronicling the long pre-history and history of the Jewish people, Michner, more often than not, casts women as the catalyst for change.  In a key moment in the novel, the wife of a key figure in the book says,    “. . .with other gods he would have been another man.”  Again, a key figure says, fascinatingly, “To understand the Jews, you must understand the book of Deuteronomy.”  You cannot leave The Source without feeling you have much more understanding of a people who are so influential.          

• State of PALESTINE:  Blood Brothers.  Elias Chacour.  |  One of the most powerful and hopeful ongoing true stories you could read from Palestine. A testament to courage, persis- tence, and the conviction that humanity itself is more important than stones, monuments, or plots of earth. It is a story of the work of peace in a land where everyone says there is none.

• TIBET:  Tibet: Land of Gentleman Brigands.  Gianni and Tiziana Baldizzone.  |  This is largely a magnificent photo journey across one of the most remote regions of Tibet.  It is a unique glimpse of a people, a glimpse we might never have had, had it not been for a truly courageous journey taken in the early 1920s by French journalist Alexandra David-Neel.  She was particularly fascinated with these people whose lives are lived in and shaped by silence. Her journeys, writings and photographs amazed readers 100 years ago. This current book retraces her journey and brings it alive with new color photography.


CATEGORY III:  On the Lighter Side

• IRELAND:  An Irish Country Childhood.  Marrie Walsh.  |  It is a book filled with words that paint rich pastoral pictures; words that fill the heart with warmth; words that are gentle.  Your only regret will be that you are reading about Ireland and not there.  The author begins with the wish that people today could somehow learn to be as content as people were when she was a child. This memoir is homespun, but that only adds to its appeal.  While the author writes of her girlhood a decade before World War II, it would not be surprising if many of the details she depicts you could find today—even the most surprising of all: the full measure of myths and ghost stories children were raised on. It is a story that assures you that neighbors were once more like family, and the result of hard physical labor was gratitude for life and a deep unity in community.

• RUSSIA and ISRAEL:  Tevye the Dairyman and The Railroad Stories. Sholem Aleichem / Translation: Hillel Halkin  |  This is an extremely memorable read.  Aleichem was a contem- porary of Anton Chekhov and an equally talented short story writer. Aleichem quickly wins the hearts of his readers by willingly giving us a character who can easily laugh at himself and change his views as he sees his own short-comings. The humor of the stories is as witty as it is wonderful. The biggest surprise is perhaps how the author manages to change us.  //  NOTE: We highly recommend the Hillel Halkin translation.  In addition, in the “Dairyman” stories the author is clearly at “his peak” of writing, but we were unable to find an edition with just the “Dairyman” stories. 


CATEGORY IV:  Thought-Provoking

• INDIA:  KOH-I-NOOR: The history of the world’s most infamous diamond.  W. Dalrymple and A. Anand. | With the exception of a few sadly gratuitous paragraphs here and there, this work (especially Part II) is more than a little thought-provoking and worth thinking about.  It is not only the story of the world’s most famous diamond but, more accurately, the mist-like notions that fill men’s thoughts and drive them, and nations, to covet a piece of stone the size of a hen’s egg, even at the expense of their lives and their nations’ dignity.  From it’s earliest days, the diamond was said to be worth “two and a half days food . . . for the whole world”. Perhaps its truer value was as a symbol of sovereignty for the people of India and for Britain, the symbol of an empire. Even more interesting than the diamond’s long journey from hand to hand, is the concise, vividly told histories of Afghanistan, India and Imperial Britain.  Even today, the diamond’s story lives on (in court cases and diplomatic disputes) and has much to say about our world and its priorities. 

• IRAN:  The Conference of the Birds.  Farid ud-Din Attar.  |  This is considered the foremost masterpiece of Persian poetry, an epic poem consisting of over 4500 lines. The author’s under- standing of human nature’s reluctance to get on with “the spiritual journey” was staggering.  It may well be many readers’ first experience with reading a book that made them better, even though the ideas are opposed to their own.  The work is a testament to ideas sincerely, searchingly, and beautifully written—even though another’s sense of things may sadden us.

• IRELAND:  Everybody Matters.  Mary Robinson.  |  If you like a story about courage, conviction, and the unflinching willingness to “speak the truth to power,” you will be glad you read this book, even though there are more than a few very dry “melba toast” bits you’ll want to skim over.  Nonetheless, Mary Robinson, as the first woman president of Ireland, the first woman UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and a founding member of The Elders is a fearless thinker and speaker—having spent her life speaking plainly to issues regarding her own church/religion and to the most powerful organizations and leaders in the world.  She is not a particularly strong writer, nonetheless, this biography (particularly chapters 16, 18, and 19) are worth the read if you can get a copy of this from your local library.   

• SPAIN, ARABIA, BRAZIL (?):  The Alchemist. Paulo Coelho. |  Having been translated into more than 70 languages and written by Brazil’s most acclaimed author about a Spanish boy traveling to Egypt in search of treasure (and, just to complicate things a bit more, it is, in fact, a Brazilian retelling of a tale from “1001 Arabian Nights”), this book fell under the “thought provoking” category. In speaking of the young hero, the author says, “From a child he had wanted to know the world. This was more important to him than knowing God.” The reader is left wondering if, in the end, even the author thought the treasure so dearly sought was no treasure at all and not worth the arduous journey.     


CATEGORY V:  Sobering

• NORTH KOREA: Without You There is No Us.  Suki Kim  |  This account of a young woman who taught school to the regime’s “upper crust” sons, leaves the reader greatly sobered by the apparent ease with which all citizens lie to each other (and themselves), yet going to great lengths to pretend that all is well. It is a sobering look at slow, patient, and persistent ways mental oppression overtakes an entire nation if it stops thinking.  

• QATAR: Jassim: The Leader. Founder of QatarMohamed A. J. Althani  |  We chose this book based on the following description on the dust jacket from the author: “In short, we’ll have to imagine a place where there was no concept of unity except as an idea in one young man’s head. Unlike with Kuwait or Oman at the beginning of the nineteenth century, there was no inevitability that Qatar would emerge as a nation in its own right. That it did so, and would become one of the richest and most influential for its modest size, is testament to a truly remarkable man.”  It is a story that will leave the reader with a whole different sense of unity—a sense westerners cannot, by and large, easily understand.  Equally important, however, are current and amazing news stories such as THIS ONE.

• UAE: Wink of the Mona LisaMohammad al Murr  |  The author is currently the head of the Dubai Cultural Council and considered one of UAE’s foremost modern writers. He is, indeed, a talented writer, yet this collection of short stories, based on everyday modern life, opens a surprising cultural window—leaving one unexpectedly aware of the greatly differing codes of ethics between East and West. 

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 ©InterestEng. July 2013  §  The stories in the magazine portion of the site are written by English language learners. Stories are corrected by a native English speaker.  § Photos are staff or used with permission.  §  To contact us:  go.gently.on@gmail.com