genre literature

Depeche Mode

“The Ukrainian version of Trainspotting, bluntly nihilistic and unexpectedly hilarious.

In 1993, tragic turbulence takes over Ukraine in the post-communist spin-off. As if in somnambulism, Soviet war veterans and upstart businessmen listen to an American preacher of whose type there were plenty at the time in the post-Soviet territory. In Kharkiv, the young communist head quarters are now an advertising agency, and a youth radio station creates a feature on the Irish folk band Depeche Mode and the role of the harmonica in the struggle against capitalist oppression. And so the Western songs make their way into ordinary Ukrainian homes of ordinary people.

In the middle of this craze, three friends—an anti-Semitic Jew Dog Pavlov, an unfortunate entrepreneur Vasia the Communist and the narrator Zhadan, nineteen years of age and unemployed—seek to find their old pal Sasha Carburator to tell him that his step-father shot himself dead. Characters confront elements of their reality, and, tainted with traumatic survival fever, embark on a sad, dramatic and a bit grotesque adventure.”

View on Amazon (US) | (UK)

Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex

Through stream-of-consciousness writing, this literary work is an “inspired exposition of one woman’s fight to catch her bearings and land on her feet, after life has thrown her a particularly nasty curve ball. At the heart of the story is a failed relationship, and here the author’s unflinching courage in dissecting the how-and-why is gripping. The larger story that envelops the love affair is, of course, the story of Ukraine itself, so unexpectedly liberated with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, coming to grips with its suppressed history and martyrology searching for its identity together with the heroine.

Called ‘the most influential Ukrainian book for the 15 years of independence,’ Field Work in Ukrainian Sex by Oksana Zabuzhko is the tale of one woman’s personal revolt provoked by a top literary scandal of the decade. The author, a noted Ukrainian poet and novelist, explains: ‘When you turn 30, you inevitably start reconsidering what you have been taught in your formative years—that is, if you really seek for your own voice as a writer. In my case, my personal identity crisis had coincided with the one experienced by my country after the advent of independence. The result turned explosive: Field Work in Ukrainian Sex.”

(A special thank you to book club member, Shivalaxmi Arumugham for the suggestion.)

View on Amazon (US) | (UK)

Hardly Ever Otherwise

“Everything eventually reaches its appointed place in time and space. Maria Matios’s dramatic family saga, Hardly Ever Otherwise, narrates the story of several western Ukrainian families during the last decades of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and expands upon the idea that ‘it isn’t time that is important, but the human condition in time.’

From the first page, Matios engages her reader with an impeccable style, which she employs to create a rich tapestry of cause and effect, at times depicting a logic that is both bitter and enigmatic. But nothing is ever fully revealed—it is only in the final pages of the novel that the events in the beginning are understood as a necessary part of a larger whole, and the section entitled ‘Seasickness’ presents a compelling argument for why events almost always have to follow a particular course.

In Matios’s multi-tiered plot, the grand passions of ordinary people are illuminated under the caliginous light of an ethereal mysticism, and digressions on love, envy, transgression, and atonement are woven into the story. The reader is submerged into a rich world populated by a grand cast of characters and ideas, which Matios animates with her prolific imagination and subtle wisdom.

Each character in this outstanding drama has an irrefutable alibi, a unique truth, and a private conflict with honor and duty. Her characters do not always act in accordance with logic and written-law, as the laws of honor clash with the laws of the heart. And this is why it is hardly ever otherwise.”

(A special thank you to book club member, Leslie Tchaikovsky for the suggestion.)

View on Amazon (US) | (UK)

Mesopotamia

“A unique work of fiction from the troubled streets of Ukraine, giving invaluable testimony to the new history unfolding in the nation’s post-independence years

This captivating book is Serhiy Zhadan’s ode to Kharkiv, the traditionally Russian-speaking city in Eastern Ukraine where he makes his home. A leader among Ukrainian post-independence authors, Zhadan employs both prose and poetry to address the disillusionment, complications, and complexities that have marked Ukrainian life in the decades following the Soviet Union’s collapse. His novel provides an extraordinary depiction of the lives of working-class Ukrainians struggling against an implacable fate: the road forward seems blocked at every turn by demagogic forces and remnants of the Russian past. Zhadan’s nine interconnected stories and accompanying poems are set in a city both representative and unusual, and his characters are simultaneously familiar and strange. Following a kind of magical-realist logic, his stories expose the grit and burden of stalled lives, the universal desire for intimacy, and a wistful realization of the off-kilter and even perverse nature of love.”

View on Amazon (US) | (UK)

Ways of Going Home

“Alejandro Zambra's Ways of Going Home begins with an earthquake, seen through the eyes of an unnamed nine-year-old boy who lives in an undistinguished middleclass housing development in a suburb of Santiago, Chile. When the neighbors camp out overnight, the protagonist gets his first glimpse of Claudia, an older girl who asks him to spy on her uncle Raúl.

In the second section, the protagonist is the writer of the story begun in the first section. His father is a man of few words who claims to be apolitical but who quietly sympathized—to what degree, the author isn't sure—with the Pinochet regime. His reflections on the progress of the novel and on his own life—which is strikingly similar to the life of his novel's protagonist—expose the raw suture of fiction and reality.

Ways of Going Home switches between author and character, past and present, reflecting with melancholy and rage on the history of a nation and on a generation born too late—the generation which, as the author-narrator puts it, learned to read and write while their parents became accomplices or victims. It is the most personal novel to date from Zambra, the most important Chilean author since Roberto Bolaño.”

View on Amazon (US) | (UK)

The White Castle

With elements of myth/historical fiction, literature, & fantasy, this very first novel of famed author Orhan Pamuk will remind you of the stories by Italo Calvino.

“From a Turkish writer who has been compared with Borges, Nabokov, and DeLillo comes a dazzling novel that is at once a captivating work of historical fiction and a sinuous treatise on the enigma of identity and the relations between East and West. In the 17th century, a young Italian scholar sailing from Venice to Naples is taken prisoner and delivered to Constantinople. There he falls into the custody of a scholar known as Hoja—’master’—a man who is his exact double. In the years that follow, the slave instructs his master in Western science and technology, from medicine to pyrotechnics. But Hoja wants to know more: why he and his captive are the persons they are and whether, given knowledge of each other's most intimate secrets, they could actually exchange identities. Set in a world of magnificent scholarship and terrifying savagery, The White Castle is a colorful and intricately patterned triumph of the imagination.”

(A special thank you to book club member, Julie Jacobs for the suggestion.)

View on Amazon (US) | (UK)

The Great Passage

“An award-winning story of love, friendship, and the power of human connection. Kohei Araki believes that a dictionary is a boat to carry us across the sea of words. But after thirty-seven years of creating dictionaries, it’s time for him to retire and find his replacement.

He discovers a kindred spirit in Mitsuya Majime—a young, disheveled square peg with a penchant for collecting antiquarian books and a background in linguistics—whom he swipes from his company’s sales department.

Along with an energetic, if reluctant, new recruit and an elder linguistics scholar, Majime is tasked with a career-defining accomplishment: completing The Great Passage, a comprehensive 2,900-page tome of the Japanese language. On his journey, Majime discovers friendship, romance, and an incredible dedication to his work, inspired by the words that connect us all.”

(A special thank you to Dr. Carol McCrea, the mother of one of our book club admins for the suggestion.)

View on Amazon (US) | (UK)

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

"Kundera has raised the novel of ideas to a new level of dreamlike lyricism and emotional intensity." -Newsweek

“A young woman in love with a man torn between his love for her and his incorrigible womanizing; one of his mistresses and her humbly faithful lover—these are the two couples whose story is told in this masterful novel. In a world in which lives are shaped by irrevocable choices and by fortuitous events, a world in which everything occurs but once, existence seems to lose its substance, its weight. Hence, we feel ‘the unbearable lightness of being’ not only as the consequence of our pristine actions but also in the public sphere, and the two inevitably intertwine.”

View on Amazon (US) | (UK)

The Duppy

“‘Every country (if she’s lucky) gets the Mark Twain she deserves, and Winkler is ours, bristling with savage Jamaican wit’ -Marlon James
 
Being dead is most definitely an impediment to writing a book, under ordinary circumstances. But the narrator of this novel, Taddeus Augustus Baps, has turned into a duppy—a ghost renowned in Caribbean folklore—and he has a story to tell.
 
At first, he thinks that his new status as a spirit will provide some mischievous fun, but he’s in for disappointment. He gets whisked off to heaven—via minibus—where he meets not only God but some other interesting characters, and finds that the afterlife can be more irritating than one might expect . . .
 
This smart, rollicking, and ultimately uplifting tale is a delight from the prize-winning author of The Lunatic and other comic novels. As The Independent said of Anthony Winkler’s work, “It’s almost as if P. G. Wodehouse had strolled into the world of Bob Marley.’”

View on Amazon (US) | (UK)

Here Comes the Sun

“At an opulent resort in Montego Bay, Margot hustles to send her younger sister, Thandi, to school. Taught as a girl to trade her sexuality for survival, Margot is ruthlessly determined to shield Thandi from the same fate. When plans for a new hotel threaten their village, Margot sees not only an opportunity for her own financial independence but also perhaps a chance to admit a shocking secret: her forbidden love for another woman. As they face the impending destruction of their community, each woman – fighting to balance the burdens she shoulders with the freedom she craves – must confront long-hidden scars.

From a much-heralded new writer, Here Comes the Sun offers a dramatic glimpse into a vibrant, passionate world most outsiders see simply as paradise.”

(A special thank you to book club member, Neha Mehta for the suggestion.)

View on Amazon (US) | (UK)

The Man Who Spoke Snakish

Winner of the Eduard Vilde Literary Award.

The Man Who Spoke Snakish is one of those important books that speaks to your soul in its own language and which marks a milestone in your personal reading history.” - des Bouquins

“A bestseller in the author’s native country of Estonia, where the book is so well known that a popular board game has been created based on it, The Man Who Spoke Snakish is the imaginative and moving story of a boy who is tasked with preserving ancient traditions in the face of modernity.

Set in a fantastical version of medieval Estonia, The Man Who Spoke Snakish follows a young boy, Leemet, who lives with his hunter-gatherer family in the forest and is the last speaker of the ancient tongue of snakish, a language that allows its speakers to command all animals. But the forest is gradually emptying as more and more people leave to settle in villages, where they break their backs tilling the land to grow wheat for their ‘bread’ (which Leemet has been told tastes horrible) and where they pray to a god very different from the spirits worshipped in the forest’s sacred grove. With lothario bears who wordlessly seduce women, a giant louse with a penchant for swimming, a legendary flying frog, and a young charismatic viper named Ints, The Man Who Spoke Snakish is a totally inventive novel for readers of David Mitchell, Sjón, and Terry Pratchett.”

(A special thank you to book club member, Linda Varick-Cooper for the suggestion.)

View on Amazon (US) | (UK)

The Petty God

“Events unfold, as in a detective story, or as voices in a fugue. No, I won’t deprive you from the pleasure of unfolding yourselves in hot pursuit of these events and then becoming whole again (as voices become whole in an exhilarating counterpoint). - The Estonian Daily

Set in an Estonian advertising agency after the end of communism, Petty God is a modern retelling of the biblical creation story. Consisting of monologues from four characters, this abstract work showcases the absurdities of modern urban life through the use of extended metaphors derived from the Bible.

View on Amazon (US) | (UK)

Changes

"Esi decides to divorce after enduring yet another morning's marital rape. Though her friends and family remain baffled by her decision (after all, he doesn't beat her!), Esi holds fast. When she falls in love with a married man—wealthy, and able to arrange a polygamous marriage—the modern woman finds herself trapped in a new set of problems. Witty and compelling, Aidoo's novel, 'inaugurates a new realist style in African literature.'

A love story in a world where the working lives of women have changed, but cultural assumptions have not."

View on Amazon (US) | (UK)

Not Without Flowers

In this contemporary work of women's fiction tinged with surrealism, Not Without Flowers provides insight into aspects of Ghanaian culture many readers may be unfamiliar with—polygamy along with the poor treatment of mental health & HIV.

"Amma Darko tells the story of women in Africa: here it is—misery, pain, agony, dilemmas, and frustrations. She floats the reader on a world of inverted reality, which yet becomes the norm. With creative imagination, confronting the social realities, she seeks out the world of peace and tranquility. But not without verisimilitude. The extremes of moral turpitude beget horrid outcomes, leaving suspense rather than resolution. 

Amma Darko is one of the most significant contemporary Ghanaian literary writers."

View on Amazon (US) | (UK)

Ordained by the Oracle

Despite the rapid proliferation of Christianity in Ghana, indigenous religious beliefs & practices continue to exercise a profound influence on many  Ghanaians. Among the most widespread of these are a commitment to the reality of ancestral spirits, the necessity of appeasing them through the pouring of libations, & the unique traditional customs which must be performed during 40 days & nights of funeral rituals. 

In this internationally acclaimed novel, Ghanaian journalist Asare Konadu draws on rural life in Ghana to "vividly depict the conflicting strains of emotion and social behaviour of a prosperous trader named Boateng" who must participate in the traditional practices of Akan culture when his wife suddenly dies.

View on Amazon (US) | (UK)

Butterflies in November

Long-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2014

"In Butterflies in November, internationally best-selling author Auur Ava lafsdttir crafts a 'funny, moving, and occasionally bizarre exploration of life's upheavals and reversals' (Financial Times).

After a day of being dumped - twice - and accidentally killing a goose, a young woman yearns for a tropical vacation far away from the chaos of her life. Instead, her plans are thrown off course by her best friend's four-year-old deaf-mute son, thrust into her reluctant care. But when the boy chooses the winning numbers for a lottery ticket, the two of them set off on a road trip across Iceland with a glove compartment stuffed full of their jackpot earnings. Along the way, they encounter black sand beaches, cucumber farms, lava fields, flocks of sheep, an Estonian choir, a falconer, a hitchhiker, and both of her exes desperate for another chance. As she and the boy grow closer, what began as a spontaneous adventure unexpectedly and profoundly changes the way she views her past and charts her future.

Butterflies in November is a blackly comic, charming, and uplifting tale of friends and lovers, motherhood, and self-discovery."

(A special thank you to book club member, Karen Vingan for the suggestion.)

View on Amazon (US) | (UK) | (India)

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."

View on Amazon (US) | (UK) | (India)

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."

View on Amazon (US) | (UK) | (India)

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.

View on Amazon (US) | (UK) | (India)

Girls of Riyadh

"Framed as a series of e-mails sent to the subscribers of an Internet group, the story follows an unnamed narrator who recounts the misadventures of her best friends—all fashionable, educated, wealthy 20-somethings looking for true love. Their world is dominated by prayer, family loyalty and physical modesty, but the voracious consumption of luxury goods and yearnings for female empowerment are also part of the package. 

When Rajaa Alsanea boldly chose to open up the hidden world of Saudi women—their private lives and their conflicts with the traditions of their culture—she caused a sensation across the Arab world. Now in English, Alsanea’s tale of the personal struggles of four young upper-class women offers Westerners an unprecedented glimpse into a society often veiled from view. Living in restrictive Riyadh but traveling all over the globe, these modern Saudi women literally and figuratively shed traditional garb as they search for love, fulfillment, and their place somewhere in between Western society and their Islamic home."

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

View on Amazon (US) | (UK) | (India)