Like Water for Chocolate

"Earthy, magical, and utterly charming, this tale of family life in turn-of-the-century Mexico blends poignant romance and bittersweet wit. 

This classic love story takes place on the De la Garza ranch, as the tyrannical owner, Mama Elena, chops onions at the kitchen table in her final days of pregnancy. While still in her mother's womb, her daughter to be weeps so violently she causes an early labor, and little Tita slips out amid the spices and fixings for noodle soup. This early encounter with food soon becomes a way of life, and Tita grows up to be a master chef, using cooking to express herself and sharing recipes with readers along the way."

(A special thank you to book club member, Aisha Esbhani for the suggestion.)

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The Body Where I Was Born

The first novel to appear in English by one of the most talked-about and critically acclaimed writers of new Mexican fiction. A Bogotá 39 author & Granta "Best Untranslated Writer," Nettel has received numerous awards.
 
"From a psychoanalyst's couch, the narrator looks back on her bizarre childhood—in which she was born with an abnormality in her eye into a family intent on fixing it. In a world without the time and space for innocence, the narrator intimately recalls her younger self—a fierce and discerning girl open to life’s pleasures and keen to its ruthless cycle of tragedy.

With raw language and a brilliant sense of humor, both delicate and unafraid, Nettel strings together hard-won, unwieldy memories—taking us from Mexico City to Aix-en-Provence, France, then back home again—to create a portrait of the artist as a young girl. In these pages, Nettel’s art of storytelling transforms experience into inspiration and a new startling perception of reality."

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Down the Rabbit Hole

While more of a novella than a novel at 97 pages, this book was shortlisted for the 2011 Guardian First Book Award and the awarded the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize.

"A pint-size novel about innocence, beastliness and a child learning the lingo in a drug wonderland. Funny, convincing, appalling, it's a punch-packer for one so small." - Famed author, Ali Smith

"Tochtli lives in a palace. He loves hats, samurai, guillotines, and dictionaries, and what he wants more than anything right now is a new pet for his private zoo: a pygmy hippopotamus from Liberia. But Tochtli is a child whose father is a drug baron on the verge of taking over a powerful cartel, and Tochtli is growing up in a luxury hideout that he shares with hit men, prostitutes, dealers, servants, and the odd corrupt politician or two. Down the Rabbit Hole, a masterful and darkly comic first novel, is the chronicle of a delirious journey to grant a child's wish."

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Signs Preceding the End of the World

A metaphysical read shortlisted for the Rómulo Gallegos Prize

"Short, suspenseful . . . outlandish and heartbreaking." - New York Times

"Signs Preceding the End of the World is one of the most arresting novels to be published in Spanish in the last ten years. Yuri Herrera does not simply write about the border between Mexico and the United States and those who cross it. He explores the crossings and translations people make in their minds and language as they move from one country to another, especially when there’s no going back. Traversing this lonely territory is Makina, a young woman who knows only too well how to survive in a violent, macho world. Leaving behind her life in Mexico to search for her brother, she is smuggled into the USA carrying a pair of secret messages - one from her mother and one from the Mexican underworld."

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Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

"Latin America's great poet rendered into English by the world's most celebrated translator of Spanish-language literature.

Sor Juana (1651–1695) was a fiery feminist and a woman ahead of her time. Like Simone de Beauvoir, she was very much a public intellectual. Her contemporaries called her 'the Tenth Muse and 'the Phoenix of Mexico,' names that continue to resonate. An illegitimate child, self-taught intellectual, and court favorite, she rose to the height of fame as a writer in Mexico City during the Spanish Golden Age.

This volume includes Sor Juana's best-known works: 'First Dream,' her longest poem and the one that showcases her prodigious intellect and range, and 'Response of the Poet to the Very Eminent Sor Filotea de la Cruz,' her epistolary feminist defense—evocative of Mary Wollstonecraft and Emily Dickinson—of a woman's right to study and to write. Thirty other works—playful ballads, extraordinary sonnets, intimate poems of love, and a selection from an allegorical play with a distinctive New World flavor—are also included."

(A special thank you to book club member, Judy Shenk for the suggestion.)

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The Underdogs


Lauded as the greatest novel of the Mexican Revolution, The Underdogs is "a foundational work of modern Mexican and Latin American literature."

"Demetrio Macias, a poor, illiterate Indian, must join the rebels to save his family. Courageous and charismatic, he earns a generalship in Pancho Villa’s army, only to become discouraged with the cause after it becomes hopelessly factionalized. At once a spare, moving depiction of the limits of political idealism, an authentic representation of Mexico’s peasant life, and a timeless portrait of revolution, The Underdogs is an iconic novel of the Latin American experience and a powerful novel about the disillusionment of war."

Note: This translation by Gustavo Pellon is the one we recommend. (Other translations are often considered stilted with dialog rendering the characters as caricatures of themselves.) In addition, this version offers an extensive appendix setting the novel in its historical, literary, & political context.

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Tears of the Desert

"Like the single white eyelash that graces her row of dark lashes–seen by her people as a mark of good fortune–Halima Bashir’s story stands out. Tears of the Desert is the first memoir ever written by a woman caught up in the war in Darfur. It is a survivor’s tale of a conflicted country, a resilient people, and the uncompromising spirit of a young woman who refused to be silenced.

Born into the Zaghawa tribe in the Sudanese desert, Halima was doted on by her father, a cattle herder, and kept in line by her formidable grandmother. A politically astute man, Halima’s father saw to it that his daughter received a good education away from their rural surroundings. Halima excelled in her studies and exams, surpassing even the privileged Arab girls who looked down their noses at the black Africans. With her love of learning and her father’s support, Halima went on to study medicine, and at twenty-four became her village’s first formal doctor.

Janjaweed Arab militias started savagely assaulting the Zaghawa, often with the backing of the Sudanese military. Then, the Janjaweed attacked Bashir’s village raping 42 schoolgirls and their teachers. Bashir, who treated the victims, could no longer remain quiet. But breaking her silence ignited a horrifying turn of events.

In this harrowing and heartbreaking account, Halima Bashir sheds light on the hundreds of thousands of innocent lives being eradicated by what is fast becoming one of the most terrifying genocides of the twenty-first century."

(A special thank you to book club member, Ester Elbert for the suggestion.)

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The Longing of the Dervish

Winner of the Naguib Mahfouz Medal, a literary award given to the best contemporary novel written in Arabic
-and-
Shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2015

"A bittersweet historical novel set in 19th century Sudan during the uprising of a Sudanese religious leader who declared himself as the Mahdi — or guided one — against the Ottoman Empire & the English-Egyptian government. 

Freed slave Bakhit is let out of prison with the overthrow of the Mahdist state in Sudan. On the brink of death, the memory of his beloved Theodora is all that has sustained him through seven years of grim incarceration—that and his vow to avenge her killing.

Set against a backdrop of war, religious fervor, and the monumental social and political upheavals of the time, The Longing of the Dervish is a love story in the most unlikely of circumstances.

Lyrical and evocative, Hammour Ziada's masterfully crafted novel is about sorrow, hope, and the cruelty of fate."

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Lyrics Alley

"Lyrics Alley is the evocative story of an affluent Sudanese family shaken by the shifting powers in their country and the near-tragedy that threatens the legacy they've built for decades.

In 1950s Sudan, the powerful Abuzeid dynasty has amassed a fortune through their trading firm. With Mahmoud Bey at its helm, they can do no wrong. But when Mahmoud's son, Nur, the brilliant, handsome heir to the business empire, suffers a debilitating accident, the family stands divided in the face of an uncertain future. As British rule nears its end, the country is torn between modernizing influences and the call of traditions past—a conflict reflected in the growing tensions between Mahmoud's two wives: the younger, Nabilah, longs to return to Egypt and escape 'backward-looking' Sudan; while Waheeba lives traditionally behind veils and closed doors. It's not until Nur asserts himself outside the cultural limits of his parents that his own spirit and the frayed bonds of his family begin to mend.

Moving from Sudanese alleys to cosmopolitan Cairo and a decimated postcolonial Britain, this sweeping tale of desire, loss, despair, and reconciliation is one of the most accomplished portraits ever written about Sudanese society at the time of independence."

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Slave

"Mende Nazer lost her childhood at age twelve, when she was sold into slavery. It all began one horrific night in 1993, when Arab raiders swept through her Nuba village, murdering the adults and rounding up thirty-one children, including Mende.

Mende was sold to a wealthy Arab family who lived in Sudan's capital city, Khartoum. So began her dark years of enslavement. Her Arab owners called her 'Yebit,' or 'black slave.' She called them 'master.' She was subjected to appalling physical, sexual, and mental abuse. She slept in a shed and ate the family leftovers like a dog. She had no rights, no freedom, and no life of her own.

Normally, Mende's story never would have come to light. But seven years after she was seized and sold into slavery, she was sent to work for another master—a diplomat working in the United Kingdom. In London, she managed to make contact with other Sudanese, who took pity on her. In September 2000, she made a dramatic break for freedom.

Slave is a story almost beyond belief. It depicts the strength and dignity of the Nuba tribe. It recounts the savage way in which the Nuba and their ancient culture are being destroyed by a secret modern-day trade in slaves. Most of all, it is a remarkable testimony to one young woman's unbreakable spirit and tremendous courage."

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The Translator

A NY Times Notable Book of the Year and an internationally bestselling book

"The Translator is a suspenseful, harrowing, and deeply moving memoir of how one person has made a difference in the world—an on-the-ground account of one of the biggest stories of our time. Using his high school knowledge of languages as his weapon—while others around him were taking up arms—Hari has helped inform the world about Darfur.

Hari, a Zaghawa tribesman, grew up in a village in the Darfur region. As a child, he saw colorful weddings and raced his camels across the desert. In 2003, this traditional life was shattered when helicopter gunships appeared over Darfur’s villages, followed by Sudanese government-backed militia groups attacking on horseback, raping and murdering citizens, and burning villages. Ancient hatreds and greed for natural resources had collided, and the conflagration spread.

Though Hari’s village was destroyed, his family decimated, he himself escaped. Roaming the battlefield deserts on camels, he and a group of his friends helped survivors find food, water, and the way to safety. When international aid groups and reporters arrived from the BBC and Chicago Tribune, Hari offered his services as a translator and guide. In doing so, he risked his life again and again for the government of Sudan had outlawed journalists, and death was the punishment for those who aided the 'foreign spies.' And then, inevitably, his luck ran out and he was captured.

The Translator tells the remarkable story of a man who came face-to-face with genocide—time and again risking his own life to fight injustice and save his people."

(A special thank you to book club member, Elke Richelsen for the suggestion.)

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The Wedding of Zein

"The Wedding of Zein unfolds in the same village on the upper Nile where Tayeb Salih’s tragic masterpiece Season of Migration to the North is set. Here, however, the story that emerges through the overlapping, sometimes contradictory voices of the villagers is comic. Zein is the village idiot, and everyone in the village is dumbfounded when the news goes around that he will be getting married—Zein the freak, Zein who burst into laughter the moment he was born and has kept women and children laughing ever since, Zein who lost all his teeth at six and whose face is completely hairless, Zein married at last? Zein’s particular role in the life of the village has been the peculiar one of falling in love again and again with girls who promptly marry another man. It would be unheard of for him to get married himself.

In Tayeb Salih’s wonderfully agile telling, the story of how this miracle came to be is one that engages the tensions that exist in the village, or indeed in any community: tensions between the devout and the profane, the poor and the propertied, the modern and the traditional. In the end, however, Zein’s ridiculous good luck augurs an ultimate reconciliation, opening a prospect of a world made whole.

Salih’s classic novella appears here with two of his finest short stories, The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid and A Handful of Dates."

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The True Actor

Prize-winning author Jacinto Lucas Pires has written a dream of a book—part murder mystery, part satire, & part hallucination.  

"The favored prostitute of Lisbon’s rich and powerful has been found dead amid austerity protests in Portugal, and down-on-his-luck actor Americo Abril, who has just won the role of a lifetime playing Paul Giamatti in the avant-garde film Being Paul Giamatti, is the prime suspect.

Abril seeks the real killer, and he grapples with what it means to be Paul Giamatti. Confounded by the role he plays in the film and the roles that he plays in real life—weary dad, blocked artist, henpecked husband, miserable lover, wanted man—Abril struggles to hold together himself, his family, and his country.

The True Actor, the English debut by award-winning Portuguese author Jacinto Lucas Pires, manages both a postmodern boondoggle and a touching story of identity and love and loss in austerity-era Portugal."

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Baltasar and Blimunda

Written by the Portuguese recipient of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature in his trademark sinuous writing style filled with uniquely long sentences & digressions, José Saramago has written "'a romance and an adventure, a rumination on royalty and religion in 18th-century Portugal and a bitterly ironic comment on the uses of power.' —The New York Times

Portugal, 1711. The Portuguese king promises the greedy prelates of the Church an expansive new convent, should they intercede with God to give him an heir. A lonely priest works in maniacal solitude on his Passarola, a heretical flying machine he hopes will allow him to soar far from the madness surrounding him. A young couple, brought together by chance, live out a sweet, if tormented, romance. Meanwhile, amid the fires and horrors of the Inquisition, angry crowds and abused peasants rejoice in spectacles of cruelty, from bullfighting to auto-da-fé; disgraced priests openly flout God’s laws; and chaos reigns over a society on the brink of disaster.
 
Weaving together multiple story lines to present both breathtaking fiction and incisive commentary, renowned Portuguese writer spins an epic and captivating yarn."

(A special thank you to book club member, Fernanda Guarnieri for the suggestion.)

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The Book of Disquiet

"For the first time—and in the best translation ever—the complete Book of Disquiet, a masterpiece beyond comparison.

The Book of Disquiet is the Portuguese modernist master Fernando Pessoa’s greatest literary achievement. An 'autobiography' or 'diary' containing exquisite melancholy observations, aphorisms, and ruminations, this classic work grapples with all the eternal questions. Now, for the first time, the texts are presented chronologically, in a complete English edition by master translator Margaret Jull Costa. Most of the texts in The Book of Disquiet are written under the semi-heteronym Bernardo Soares, an assistant bookkeeper. This existential masterpiece was first published in Portuguese in 1982, forty-seven years after Pessoa’s death. A monumental literary event, this exciting, new, complete edition spans Fernando Pessoa’s entire writing life."

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The Implacable Order of Things (aka Blank Gaze)

Known as Blank Gaze in some countries. Winner of the José Saramago Literary Award

"In an unnamed Portuguese village, against a backdrop of severe rural poverty, two generations of men and women struggle with love, violence, death, and—perhaps worst of all—the inescapability of fate.
 
A pair of twins conjoined at the pinky, a 120-year-old wise man, a shepherd turned cuckold by a giant, and even the Devil himself make up the unforgettably oddball cast of The Implacable Order of Things. As these lost souls come together and drift apart, José Luís Peixoto masterfully reveals the absurd, heartbreaking, and ultimately bewitching aspects of human nature in a literary performance that heralds the arrival of an astoundingly gifted and poetic writer."

(A special thank you to book club member, Yurena Bookish for the suggestion.)

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The Piano Cemetery

"The Lázaro family are carpenters who would rather be piano-makers. In the dusty back room of their carpentry shop in Lisbon is the 'piano cemetery', filled with broken-down pianos that provide the spare parts needed for repairing and rebuilding instruments all over the city. It is a mysterious and magical place, a place of solace, a dreaming place and, above all, a trysting place for lovers. Peixoto weaves the tragic true story of the marathon-runner, Francisco Lázaro, into a rich narrative of love, betrayal, domestic happiness and dashed hopes."

A mix of literature, magical realism, & romance, the Piano Cemetery is loosely—very loosely—based upon the life of the first Olympic contestant to die during an event. With dreamlike sequences & narrations by both the Olympian & his dead father,  the author showcases a different kind of contemporary fiction.

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Small Memories

Written by the Portuguese recipient of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature in his trademark sinuous writing style filled with uniquely long sentences & digressions, José Saramago recounts his early days as snippets of reminiscences that flow from one topic—and time period—to another.

"José Saramago was eighteen months old when he moved from the village of Azinhaga with his father and mother to live in Lisbon. But he would return to the village throughout his childhood and adolescence to stay with his maternal grandparents, illiterate peasants in the eyes of the outside world, but a fount of knowledge, affection, and authority to young José. 

Shifting back and forth between childhood and his teenage years, between Azinhaga and Lisbon, this is a mosaic of memories, a simply told, affecting look back into the author’s boyhood: the tragic death of his older brother at the age of four; his mother pawning the family’s blankets every spring and buying them back in time for winter; his beloved grandparents bringing the weaker piglets into their bed on cold nights; and Saramago’s early encounters with literature, from teaching himself to read by deciphering articles in the daily newspaper, to poring over an entertaining dialogue in a Portuguese-French conversation guide, not realizing that he was in fact reading a play by Molière."

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Daring to Drive

Note: After most of the book club had finished reading this book, we found out that it was actually ghostwritten by an American. This is the first book to our knowledge included in our global list which falls into this category & is normally not a book we'd read. However, since it was the book read for the month & then discussed, we've included it here. To read books by a Saudi author, we recommend any of the other 5 on our Saudi book list.

"A ferociously intimate memoir by a devout woman from a modest family in Saudi Arabia who became the unexpected leader of a courageous movement to support women’s right to drive.

Manal al-Sharif grew up in Mecca the second daughter of a taxi driver, born the year fundamentalism took hold. In her adolescence, she was a religious radical, melting her brother’s boy band cassettes in the oven because music was haram: forbidden by Islamic law. But what a difference an education can make. By her twenties she was a computer security engineer, one of few women working in a desert compound that resembled suburban America. That’s when the Saudi kingdom’s contradictions became too much to bear: she was labeled a slut for chatting with male colleagues, her teenage brother chaperoned her on a business trip, and while she kept a car in her garage, she was forbidden from driving down city streets behind the wheel.

Daring to Drive is the fiercely intimate memoir of an accidental activist, a powerfully vivid story of a young Muslim woman who stood up to a kingdom of men—and won. Writing on the cusp of history, Manal offers a rare glimpse into the lives of women in Saudi Arabia today. Her memoir is a remarkable celebration of resilience in the face of tyranny, the extraordinary power of education and female solidarity, and the difficulties, absurdities, and joys of making your voice heard."

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1000 Lashes

"'Badawi’s writings are refreshing ...This slim, but fascinating and informative volume clearly brings home the consequences of our benign neglect of the Saudi totalitarian situation.' - Library Journal

'Raif Badawi's is an important voice for all of us to hear.' - Salman Rushdie

Raif Badawi, a Saudi Arabian blogger, shared his thoughts on politics, religion, and liberalism online. He was sentenced to 1,000 lashes, ten years in prison, and a fine of 1 million Saudi Riyal, over a quarter of a million U.S. dollars. This politically topical polemic gathers together Badawi’s pivotal texts. He expresses his opinions on life in an autocratic-Islamic state under the Sharia and his perception of freedom of expression, human and civil rights, tolerance and the necessary separation of state and religion."

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