by Oui We Contributor Sam Spahr
Although my personal library is decades in the making (and heavy when packed neatly into containers), most people don’t know what my favorite genre is. Actually I don’t think it’s a real genre, because it’s kind of relative and specific to my perspective: I really dig “foreign fiction.” What I mean is that I can’t resist a novel set in a country or culture that I have little to no experience with. It’s alluring. It’s thrilling. Bonus points if the book is also a historical fiction, ooh la la! I am totally smitten with learning about new places through the lush words of a striking author. I mean, it’s kind of all the same reasons to love traveling, for real.
Reading a foreign fiction novel can be akin to immersion therapy… like that time I hopped a last minute bus to Brussels and spent my first half-hour sleuthing out what language is spoken. (There are several so joke was on me.) Similarly, once inside these stories, you may be met with a few words you don’t know or can’t yet identify. Context clues are friends not to be ignored. But the author keeps rolling and you have to keep up. A few more pages and you’re taken into the home of someone you don’t know, in a town you’ve never heard of, and they are performing regional normalcies like you aren’t even there (I know, you aren’t realllllly, but stay with me here.)
Reaching those parts of the novels get me super curious and totally locked in. My pens and highlighters make appearances on the pages (guilty, I’m a monster!) circling every word written in italics or noting historical events I haven’t heard of… and suddenly I’m googling myself into a research hole so far down I might actually end up on the other side of the world!
The point is, you don’t have to leave the arms of your favorite chair to get out there. (And you don’t need to plan a full on study session like my dramatic self either.)
Do I love buying plane tickets? Yes, it’s an actual high.
Can I afford books more than I can boarding passes? Definitely.
Do some stories inform and inspire my future travel plans? Hell yes. And that alone is worth it every. time.
So, we’ve made it to the part where I gift you with some reads I recently completed and highly recommend. I hope you get curious and book your next journey with one!
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
This book, inspired by a true story, mirrors the unsettling mystique of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace while dialing up the cold and isolation. It’s Iceland circa 1829. Agnes Magnúsdóttir awaits her impending execution at the remote farm of a family understandably terrified to house someone charged with murder. As the end draws near for Agnes, her story reveals new limbs, but does it matter? Before diving in to the prologue, brush up on your Icelandic with language notes and area maps provided by Kent right there in the book. You’ll be reading out loud just to show off your new pronunciation skills.
And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
Hosseini takes this story from a small Afghani village to greater Kabul in a handful of pages, but he doesn’t stop there. Keep pace with this multi-generational tale as you land in Paris, Greece, and America too. With many character connections made across time and seas, you can’t be coddled with this one. Readers are expected to pay attention, but it’s not a terribly difficult task given the genius of Hosseini’s storytelling. Rooted in the relationship of a brother and sister, And The Mountains Echoed is a long journey well worth the trip.
That Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
A collection of short stories so rich they will swallow you whole. Adichie serves thoughtful and studied vignettes informed by her own experience which began in Nigeria. The tales are unique from one another, but together they form a picture that is clearly relevant and not at all understated. She masterfully explores emotional and political longings that affect relationships, modern and past, from Africa to the United States. Each story exists perfectly in its limited space, and you won’t forget one. I absolutely tore through this book. I would have finished it sooner if I hadn’t made a conscious effort to slow down, but damn, it was difficult not to devour.