Do you want to learn more about the world and emerge even briefly from our privileged American bubble? Try the Global Reading Challenge (GRC), where you read at least one book about every country in the world.
I made up my own rules and created my own reading list, but lists are out there if you like other people telling you what to read. Or I can share my list, which is far superior to any other. I allowed myself any genre except sci-fi, fantasy or children’s books, and I avoided travel memoirs of the “fish out of water” variety — stories of hapless Westerners going places for which they are unprepared and where inevitable culture clash ensues due to their inexcusable obliviousness.
I started in late 2017 and finished in early 2021, and I allowed myself to count anything I remembered having read in the past. Ah, for the summer I was 12 and reading “Anna Karenina.” Russia: check!
Much of the reading was deeply troubling, human nature being what it is, but much of it was uplifting, too. Some books were highly informative, some just ripping good fun, and a few were simply dreadful, but a good mix of fiction, nonfiction, memoir and poetry are sure to keep the project interesting. I found great books about environmental issues, war reporting, linguistics, women’s rights and triumphs, genocide, life under colonialism and communism, history and anthropology; I even read a couple of cookbooks that had essay material on the culture. And the wonderful mystery novels! But my favorites turned out to be literary fiction. I find much of American fiction so ponderous. Everyone is out to write the great American novel, minimum 350 pages. How refreshing is the great storytelling from elsewhere.
Some recommended lit fic reading: In “Senselessness” by Horacio Castellano Moya, the unreliable narrator has been hired by the Catholic Church to proofread their report on Guatemala’s genocide. He spends more time trying to get laid than working, but the interspersing of brief first-person accounts of the genocide really highlights the horror. Is our narrator truly in danger or just paranoid? And when he finally does get laid? Read it yourself, why don’t you?
“The Dragon Can’t Dance” by Earl Lovelace is a story about the life and romantic troubles of a man whose claim to fame is the costume he makes each year for the Trinidad carnival. I identified with this character in a way that was disconcerting. He just lets stuff happen without taking control of his life. The excellent news is the happy ending. Gives me hope anyway.
In “99 Nights in Logar” by Jamil Jan Kochai, bombing by the U.S. is a constant in this story of a boy who returns with his family to Afghanistan after years in the U.S., gets bit by a dog and goes off with his friends in search of it. The young people refer to the Taliban as “the T” and are generally disrespectful of both Western and Afghani traditions. A good corrective to those of us still seeing Muslim culture as deeply “other.” The likability of the characters makes recent events even more troubling.
“Moth Smoke” by Mohsin Hamid is set against the backdrop of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb tests in 1999 and the rising tension with India. I found myself rooting for the not — particularly — sympathetic protagonist as he tries to live his unsavory life. I did not see the ending coming, and I love a good surprise.
And then there’s “African Psycho” by Alain Mabancko. I read several reviews of this book. Some reviewers fussed about it being too pornographic; I am sure these folks can find a Puritan colony somewhere that will take them in. Other reviews compared it unfavorably to “American Psycho,” which I have not read, but I don’t know why that would even be a relevant comparison. That’s like trying to get something meaningful out of comparing “African Psycho” to Albert Schweitzer’s “African Notebook” just because they both start with “African.” In general, the reviews were serious and disapproving. Ha! Many of the early African postcolonial novels seem very earnest, but this irreverent fuck you of a novel about a man trying to pull off one big crime in order to seal his desired notoriety is my personal favorite. Should you be afraid? Yes, very afraid. Cigar, anyone?
Literary fiction is great fun, and you can learn a great deal about a country’s culture if you are open to it, but the moral and ethical landscape gets a bit murkier when you get into memoir. Setting aside the question of “truth” in memoir, so that we don’t go down the Winfrey/Frey rabbit hole, the question that became important to me the deeper I got into the GRC is: Is this this author’s story to tell and how important is the story being told? It is probably not possible to write a memoir without telling at least a few other people’s stories, even briefly, but there is a line that shouldn’t be crossed.
I read many memoirs that were well and responsibly told, such as “The Crossing: A Story of East Timor” by Luis Cardoso, the story of a young man coming of age during the last days of the Portuguese colonial period, civil war and Indonesian occupation; “Shadows on the Tundra” by Dalia Grinkeviciute, the story of a Lithuanian woman’s experience of man’s inhumanity after she is deported to Siberia; and “An Ordinary Man: The True Story Behind the Hotel Rwanda” by Paul Rusesabagina, the memoir of the Kigali hotel manager credited with saving the lives of his guests during the Rwandan genocide. These were all important stories, told with restraint and great respect for the people depicted.
But reading various doctor memoirs made me feel inappropriately voyeuristic and complicit in the suffering of strangers who had no say in the telling of their stories. In order to write about people’s private medical issues, there must be a compelling reason, which most memoirs just cannot meet. Take “This Narrow Space: A Pediatric Oncologist, His Jewish, Muslim and Christian Patients, and a Hospital in Jerusalem” by Elisha Waldman, for example. The main thrust was that the situation in Israel makes obtaining medical care for Palestinian patients very difficult. This is terrible, of course, but the book was a parade of dying children whose stories I was uncomfortable reading. I made it only partway through “What My Patients Taught Me” by Audrey Young, a memoir about a medical student practicing in Eswatini. It had very little to say about Eswatini and less about what she learned from her patients. I found no good reason to hear these patients’ stories.
But the worst was “Tears of Salt: A Doctor’s Story” by Pietro Bartolo. I thought this memoir by an Italian doctor treating Libyan refugees would be a good choice for Libya, but this was just a series of seriously damaged people Bartolo encountered passing through Lampedusa without any real connection to the individuals. It felt gratuitous, just there for shock value. I dropped that book when I read about a man so horrifically damaged that I could no longer accept my role in his suffering.
It was not the shocking stories themselves that put me off. I have read many stories of genocide and evil that were well worth reading, although difficult to get through. But just because you change someone’s name or don’t give them a name at all, that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t recognize themselves if they read this book. But, oh yeah, this man is so far removed from our world of morning lattes and atrocity reading that under no circumstances can we conceive of him reading this book. So “other” as to have no right to dignity in his deeply private suffering. Please read something else.
Anne Jaworski is a retired manufacturing manager living in Des Moines. She has been a Real Change volunteer since 2019 and an avid reader all her life.
Read more of the Dec. 1-7, 2021 issue.