Friday, February 6, 2009

Expand Your World, Read International Literature . . . from Suzanne


A friend came into the library recently and asked me for book recommendations. She’s a former language teacher, has traveled widely, and particularly likes books with foreign settings. The first books that came to mind were some of my stand-by favorites. These included:
  • The Seven Sisters by Margaret Drabble, set in England, plus in the course of the novel the narrator takes some friends on a trip to Greece, I believe.
  • Heat Wave by Penelope Lively, set in the English countryside.
  • Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, set in Norway.
  • The Sixteen Pleasures by Robert Hellenga, set in Florence, Italy.
Since then I’ve been making a list of other books to recommend to her and other readers who like to travel through books, and specifically about books translated from other languages. Two of them are:
  • Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (Spain, Barcelona specifically)
  • Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier

Thoughts on International Literature

The most dramatic change in fiction publishing over the past 5 years, in my opinion, is the proliferation of contemporary fiction titles from abroad that are translated into English. I’ve read in various journals, including Publisher’s Weekly, about the challenges faced by foreign publishers because of the expense of translations, with no assurance that books that have been best sellers in Europe are going to make it big in the U.S. market. In fact, two books whose U.S. publication I anticipated for a long time, both blockbusters in Europe, have not had huge sales here. These are:
  • Cathedral of the Sea by Ildefonso Falcones de Sierra (Spain). This book is an 811-page saga of a Catalan family whose story is told in the context of the building of the Church of Santa Maria in Barcelona over an 80-year period. It’s long and rambling, and not as melodramatic as Ken Follett’s medieval soap operas, but better, if you have the patience.
  • The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. I read this book last month, and it immediately became one of my favorite novels of the year. Rather than write a review, I’ll put you on to Michael Dirda’s Review, which sums up the loveliness of this book.
For all of you who, like me, love to “expand your borders” through books I have some recommendations and some websites. You’ll notice that a lot of these are by French authors, and that’s because I’m an ardent Francophile.
  • Nada by Carmen Laforet (Spain)
  • The Theory of Clouds by Stephane Audeguy (France)
  • The Yacoubian Building by Alaa al Aswany (Egypt)
  • The Mystery Guest by Gregoire Bouillier (France)
  • Hotel Crystal by Olivier Rolin (France)
  • The Waitress was New by Dominique Fabre (France)
  • The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante (Italy)

Websites with Book News and Reviews

Two excellent websites for information about literature in translation, literary prizes, essays and stories are:

Words Without Borders

Man Asian Prize

I found a great list of translated books nominated for the “Best Translated Book 2008” award from Three Percent, a resource for international literature at the University of Rochester.

Three Percent

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Suzanne, thanks for your international book suggestions - you know I always rely on you for a good read! May I add the author Barry Unsworth to your list - he is British and lives in Italy. I just finished the Stone Virgin set in Venice at 3 different points in history - very well written and interesting. I am now reading The Land of Marvels his newly published novel of intrigue, archeology and romance set in what is now Iraq in 1913. In addition to a good story it provides a historical perspective on oil and the global competition for it that still persists. Georgia