A Most Particular Compendium: Kasia
Welcome to the first list from my new feature, A Most Particular Compendium! I know in my original post I said I’d limit my recommendations to five to ten, but as you’ll see shortly I failed miserably at this. However, it took a lot out of my hands to type up all of the annotations, so in the future I will be narrowing things down to no more than fifteen titles. Anyway, I’m publishing in the order I receive the e-mails, so without further ado, let’s meet my first participant, Kasia. :)
My name is Kasia, I’m Polish but recently moved to the US. I have MA in English literature and language. My dissertation was in the field of literary translation. I would like to either continue my studies and pursue a doctoral degree (And then have researches, probably teach too) or start something entirely else (Latin American Studies, preferrably). When I don’t read, I study Spanish or Russian, or play strategic board games with my husband ;). I have a bookish blog, it’s in Polish though: http://thegiantbookpile.blogspot.com/.
While my primary list (consisting of 6 titles) is of “all times,” the secondary list (4 titles) is from just the past year. It is so because my interests in certain books have shifted from eurocentric, white male authors to women writers as well as writers from all sorts of places in the world, so by combining two lists like that I wanted to give you a better idea how my taste has developed. Recently, the regions I’ve been visiting are, in particular, China and Latin America. Also, I’ve begun to read much more non-fiction, including many books on literary theory, feminism and gender, cultural studies etc. Lately I’ve been collecting (either physically on my shelves or on my wishlists) titles especially on the subject of the immigration to the US.
Her Top Ten (the first six are her primary, last four her secondary)
- T.S. Eliot – “The Wasteland” – Not sure if poetry is allowed but it is one of the most important pieces of writing to me. For expressing most inexpressible in sharp, confused, quick images. Besides, I’m a huge lover of poetry.
- Tennessee Williams – “The Glass Menagerie” – I love Williams’ plays for a large dose of compassionately presented neurosis and for wonderful women characters.
- Patrick White – “The Tree of Man” – It is my kind of Genesis book, describes the (hi)story of an Australian family. Simple characters, yet with pitch-black-deep souls.
- Gabriel Garcia Marquez – “Love in the Times of Cholera” – But, in fact, it could be any Marquez book. I love how it makes you dream without sleeping.
- Jeanette Winterson – “Gut symmetries” – Very acute style of writing, even piercing. Yet it always works well with Winterson’s ideas of the cosmic ideas she puts forward in this novel.
- Jack London – “Martin Eden” – I will forever be in love with Martin Eden, who, as tough as he was, discovered that most people rarely care for you as you are too late in his life, and then suffered the consequences of this discovery.
- Ma Jian – “The Noodle Maker” – I just very recently finished it. I love how merciless Jian is – by exposing his peoples’ loneliness and cruelty, he exposes these in anybody who reads it.
- Lisa See – “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” – While the writing and the story are not exactly what I would think of as mind-blowing, this book turned me to reading more China-related and Chinese literature, including the ones on so-called ‘Old China,’ like this one.
- Sandra Cisneros – “The House on Mango Street” – I have been exploring more and more of Chicana literature and this novel is wonderful. Poem-like vignettes revealing sharp observatory skills of the author.
- Paul Theroux – “The Great Railway Bazaar” – labelled as travelogue, it is actually a journey into Theroux’ sadder and sadder soul, and it is amazing to observe how the places he visits correspond with his condition.
- Judith Butler – “Gender Trouble” – I’ve been more and more into non-fiction recently and this book really changed my view on gender(s). Pretty difficult read at times but definitely worth it.
My Recommendations (first fiction, then nonfiction)
- The Vagrants by Yiyun Li: since you’ve been enjoying Chinese literature, I’d be remiss not to include one of my favourites! This is her novel, set entirely in China during the 1970s, and it follows various residents of a city and the choices they have to make. (If you’re more interested in Chinese immigrants to the US, her excellent short story collection Gold Boy, Emerald Girl focuses more on that.)
- Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang: my other favourite Chinese author! She’s definitely not a ‘comfort read,’ since all of the stories in this collection focus on the darker aspects of life, but her prose is just stunning.
- The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories by Carson McCullers: I’m also a fan of Southern lit, and since you mentioned Williams, I have to recommend McCullers to you! She’s definitely part of the Southern gothic style, and her focus on the way outcasts from regular society try to connect seems right up your alley.
- We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson: while Jackson wasn’t southern, she certainly wrote gothic stories that took a darker view of human nature! This is my favourite of hers, since it gets its creepiness from natural sources, and Merrikat is such a wonderful unreliable narrator.
- The Opposite House by Helen Oyeyemi: really, all of her books are marvelous, but this one deals with the most directly with immigrant issues. Her books are a bit weird, but in a wonderful, gothic way; they have that same dream-like feel that you mention loving in Marquez.
- Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya: since you’re getting into Chicano literature, you have to read one of the ‘classics’ of the genre! Set in post-WWII New Mexico and told from a young boy’s point of view, this is just a stunning story.
- In Search of Snow by Luis Alberto Urrea: another of my Chicano favourites, you can’t go wrong with any of Urrea’s books. I picked this one, his first novel, because it’s a bit grittier but still has the slightly fantastic tone that I love him for. If you’re in the mood for something a bit more cheerful, both The Hummingbird’s Daughter and Into the Beautiful North have more of a fairy-tale feel!
- So Far From God by Ana Castillo: the last of my Chicano recommendations, and another novel set in New Mexico. Castillo has a wonderful magical realist style that I think you’ll enjoy, since you’re already a fan of Marquez, and she doesn’t shy away from the stark realities of being part of a marginalised group.
- Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid: since you mentioned being interested in literature centered on immigrants, this is an excellent little book about Lucy, who moves to NYC from Antigua in order to be a nanny. She’s only ninenteen and smart as a whip; the book is written in diary form, so it’s a coming-of-age story with a sarcastic bent.
- By the Sea by Abdulrazak Gurnah: this is a fantastic novel, featuring an immigrant from Zanzibar to the UK. It moves back and forth in time, looking at both his experiences adjusting to a new culture (and winning political asylum) as well as his former life in Zanzibar. Gurnah wrotes beautifully lyrical poetry, and he doesn’t shy away from difficult issues.
- I, the Divine by Rabih Alameddine: while the format sounds experimental (it’s a novel told in first chapters, each of which is written by the main character as she attempts to begin a memoir of her life), I promise you it works. Alameddine is a magical author, and through the format he reveals bits and pieces of Sara’s life. And Sara was born in Lebanon but immigrated to the US, which is why I think this is an especially good novel for you to look into!
- The Translator by Leila Aboulela: Aboulela has a wonderfully delicate touch to both her prose and her characters; she’s definitely one of my favourite literary authors. This novel focuses on a young widow who has immigrated from Sudan to Scotland, and her attempts to make a new life for herself.
- Fall On Your Knees by Anne Marie Macdonald: set during the turn of the century, this is a very gothic tale of an immigrant family in Nova Scotia. There’s a lot of darkness in this lush book, but I really loved it. Definitely a nice, meaty read.
- Small Island by Andrea Levy: the last book on my list about immigrants, and it’s also about the UK rather than the US! Sorry about that. Either way, it’s excellent, with a storyline that moves back and forth between Jamaica and England, primarily during and after WWII. Lots of strong characters making difficult decisions.
- Passing by Nella Larsen: Larsen was part of the Harlem Renaissance, and Passing is really her masterpiece. It looks at two light-skinned African American women who have chosen very different paths in life and how their lives end up intertwined. Lots of wonderful ambiguities for you to explore as a reader!
- Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko: Silko is a Native American author, and thus this isn’t exactly an immigrant book. But it is one of the most touching, stunning novels I’ve ever read, with a mix of magical realism and gritty, painful truthtelling that makes it impossible to put down.
- Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset, translated by Tiina Nunally: set in Undset’s native Norway but during the Middle Ages, this isn’t a book for everyone. It’s quite long (over one thousand pages), and the heroine Kristin experiences a lot of soul-searching and second-guessing of her decisions. That being said, I loved it, and I suspect from your list that you’d connect with it as well! And if you don’t like it, it was originally published as three books, so it’d be easy to abandon after one or two. ;)
- Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner: this is a fascinating novel about European immigrants to South Africa. It has a lot of feminism and rage mixed up in it, and I suspect Schreiner wasn’t particularly sold on most of humanity. There’s also a staggering amount of racism towards the native South Africans, but I still think it’s worth a read. It gave me a lot to think about.
- Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon by Jorge Amado: another excellent Latin American author who uses magical realism to wonderful effect! Amado is Brazilian, and this is a fascinating story set in his native Bahia. It’s both romantic and full of awareness of social justice issues.
- Remembering Babylon by David Malouf: a wonderful book set in 19th century Australia, this is about what happens when a white boy raised by Aborigines grows up and rejoins the white settlers. Malouf deftly handles issues of colonialism and racism while telling a compelling story.
- A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry: while Mistry is a Canadian, this book is set entirely in India. It’s very well written, with excellent, vivid characters; I couldn’t quite love it because of its dark plotline, but looking at your choices I think you’ll handle it better! Since you’re just beginning to explore world literature, I’m not sure if you’ve tried any Indian authors yet; if not, I suspect you’ll very soon find yourself addicted.
- Cartographies: Meditations on Travel by Marjorie Agosin: this is the only book of poetry you’ll find on the list, as I’m shamefully under-read in that department. And this isn’t traditional poetry, although Agosin is a poet; I think she meant it as prose but when I read it it definitely seemed more like poetry. Anyway, Agosin in Chilean, and in this book she reflects on travelling and migrating, both her own and that of her family.
- Once Upon a Quincenera by Julia Alvarez: this is the least ‘literary’ book I’m recommending to you, but it’s a fascinating blend of immigrant and women’s issues. Alvarez, herself part of the NYC Dominican Republic immigrant community, travelled around the US looking at the quincenera phenomenon and how it relates to the US Latino community.
- Travels in a Thin Country by Sara Wheeler: considering your praise for Theroux, I think you’ll also enjoy this British travel writer! In this book, she writes about her adventures in Chile, and she brings a wonderful level of self-awareness to her project, not to mention a bit of a mournful tone that I think you’ll like.
- Shadows of the Silk Road by Colin Thubron: this is another British travel writer who you should look into! This particular title sees him following the silk route, so there’s a lot of focus on China. :)
- A Border Passage by Leila Ahmed: this is one of my very favourite nonfiction books ever, and considering Ahmed looks at issues of immigration, feminism, and literary analysis, I think you’ll love it too!
- American Chica by Marie Arana: a very well-written memoir that focuses on Arana’s childhood growing up in two cultures, that of the US west due to her mother and Peruvian upper classes due to her father.
- Woman: an Intimate Geography by Natalie Angier: since you mentioned you’ve recently gotten into both nonfiction reading and women’s studies, I can’t resist including this book on the list! An excellent scientific-based look at women’s bodies and the various issues society raises over them.
- Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith: a wonderful essay collection, primarily focused on literary studies, and thus I think you’ll definitely enjoy it.
- In My Father’s House by Kwame Anthony Appiah: one last book in the literary studies department, Appiah (a Ghana native who now lives in the US) looks at the state of post-independence Western African literature. This is a really excellent account!
Well Kasia, I hope you enjoyed the list and that I chose books that appeal to your taste! If you have half as much fun perusing it as I did putting it together, I’d said it’s been successful. :) Thank you so much for taking the time to participate!
For everyone else, if you’d like a personalised list of recommendations, feel free to e-mail me! I feel I should clarify that you don’t need to list your top ten favourite books ever, just the ten you’d like me to base my recommendations on. And as I mentioned in the first paragraph, in the future I’ll be limiting myself to ten to fifteen titles (so about half of this one). But for the inaugural list, I guess I got a bit carried away! Anyway, I look forward to more e-mails and can’t wait to start working on the lists for those who have already contacted me.