As I mentioned in my last post, my pleasure reading of late has been almost entirely limited to audiobooks. It's been a while since I finished some of these, but here are some quick reviews of international-themed books I've been reading/listening to over the past few months:
Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron
Rating: 4/5 Stars
Audience: Adult/YA Crossover
Genre: Coming-of-Age Story/Political Fiction/War Story
This stunning coming of age novel tells the story of Jean Patrick Nkuba, a young Rwandan who dreams of running in the Olympics. He is a kindhearted and slightly naive boy, but as he grows older he becomes increasingly aware of the stark ethnic divide in his country and the challenges his Tutsi heritage will present to achieving his dream. Gripping and frequently distressing—this is one of the few novels that has made me cry—Running the Rift is nevertheless a story of hope, love, and perseverance. Benaron does not shy away from the escalating violence that eventually leads to the Rwandan genocide, but the story is not sensationalistic in any way. Instead, through the fictionalized account of Jean Patrick, it brings a relatable voice to an unimaginable tragedy and shows that there is much more to the country and its people than can be surmised from political reports and news stories. In contrast to the unflinching portrait of violence and moral complexities are Jean Patrick’s genuine love of his sport, his country, his family, and a young woman for whom he would do almost anything.
The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
Rating: 3.5/5 Stars
Genre: Literary Fiction/Political Fiction/Dystopia
Set in the real-world dystopia of North Korea, this Pulitzer Prize–winning novel takes readers on a weird and wonderful journey along with its anti-hero protagonist. Jun Do begins life with the unlucky reputation of being an orphan—although in actuality he is not—and through a series of strange circumstances and fateful choices he finds himself filling unlikely roles, from professional kidnapper to national hero to romantic rival of the Great Leader himself. Set in a world where the “story” is so much more important than truth—where the story becomes truth—Jun Do seizes opportunities to reinvent himself over and over, and yet the nature and politics of North Korea can easily take him on a detour that will rewrite his story all over again. Perhaps because the world it explores is so very alien, I must admit that I initially found this book a bit difficult to connect with. I also wonder whether my occasional dissatisfaction might be related to the audio format. There are multiple voices and frequent interruptions from propagandist loudspeakers that perhaps did not translate well in this audio adaptation. But while it becomes a bit tedious at times (whether due to format or subject matter), The Orphan Master’s Son is also frequently brilliant, fascinating, and surprising.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
Rating: 4/5 Stars
Genre: Nonfiction/Social Issues/Travel Writing
In this intimate and poignant book, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist creates a extraordinary portrait of India's urban poor. By focusing on Annawadi, one of dozens of tiny slums that exist alongside the modern new airport and luxury hotels of Mumbai, Katherine Boo is able to bring to life the everyday realities faced by so many. While the story centers on the accusations of a woman who set herself on fire and the repercussions for the family accused of harming her, several key residents of the small undercity are examined. From petty squabbles that escalate into tragedy to a murdered garbage thief left ignored on the side of the road, death and survival in Annawadi is brought to vivid life by Boo’s compassionate yet clear-eyed reportage. There is Abdul, the quiet, diligent garbage collector; Asha, an ambitious kindergarten teacher determined to work the corrupt system for her own betterment; and Manju, Asha’s disapproving, intelligent daughter who hopes education will be her way out. Readers are left both frustrated by the actions of some residents and cautiously hopeful for the futures of others; but, in the end, the people of Annawadi are portrayed at complex individuals, not as collective objects of pity but as human beings fighting for survival and carving out a life in a flawed and corrupt system.