Sunday, August 07, 2011

Three favorite books about international characters

Dawn by Elie Wiesel
I read this a couple years ago and picked it up from the library to re-read recently, then had my mom read it as well. Thanks to the conciseness of its 80 pages, this novel is approachable to most readers. The plot is seemingly simple--the thoughts and reflections of a Jewish Israeli freedom fighter (or terrorist, depending on your viewpoint) on the night he is condemned to kill a British soldier in retaliation for the execution of a fellow Israeli fighter.

Though fictional, I think this story lends more insight to the Israeli vs. British fight for a Jewish homeland than the passing mentions the conflict is usually given in American history textbooks. As a book comprised of the main character's reflections, it is moving and raises important questions about the ambiguity of good and evil; Dawn is a book that explores the inner workings of the "gray area" of black and white.

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (series) by Alexander McCall Smith
This heartwarming, cheery series about the proudly "traditionally built" Botswanan self-made detective Precious Ramotswe makes mystery both realistic and readable for easily scared folks like me. The series (thankfully) features no Agatha Christie-style nail-biters where people are getting murdered left and right; no, the problems Precious Ramotswe solves have more to do with people, feelings, and culture--whether stolen cattle or unethical witchdoctors, wayward apprentices or soon-to-be-married couples.

Nobody ends up getting killed and best of all, McCall Smith writes a perfect balance of interesting plot and beautifully lyrical details of the Botswanan landscape. The books give us a great gift of seeing Africa outside the lens of what we typically see in the news--famines in Somalia or protests in Egypt; shifting our focus away from the tragic or dramatic and painting a picture of the everyday and the beautiful. (Oh, and McCall Smith's other books are awesome too--I love the Sunday Philosophy Club, Irregular Portuguese Verbs, Corduroy Mansions, La's Orchestra Saves the World, and all the rest). :)

Aria by Nassim Assefi
While it's arguable that the main character in Aria, Dr. Jasmine Talahi, lives in Seattle and is thus not an "international character," the book--told as a series of letters and narratives--follows the Iranian-American woman around the world in her odyssey--both tangible and intangible--to find peace after the death of her five-year-old daughter. While the main character's Iranian heritage plays strongly into the novel, providing an un-sensationalized insight into Iran (much like Ladies' Detective Agency for Botswana and Africa), it is not the sole subject of the book.

The complexity of the protagonist's own struggle with the meaning of loss and mourning, an epistolary tug-of-war between supporting characters pleading with Jasmine to come back home, and the slow revelation of Jasmine's past over the course of the book, and you have a novel that is at once a mental reflection and a physical journey.


There you have some of my favorite books with international characters! I've found that reading fiction is an excellent way to broaden one's horizons about the world from a more first-person perspective.

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