Reading Around the World

I am embarking on a journey to read at least one book written by an author from each country in the world. Below is a list that shows my current progress.

Finland – The Year of the Hare – By Arto Paasilinna – Translated by Janiksen vuosi – Penguin Books, 1995. Vatanen is tired of his job as a journalist, his busy city life, his colleagues and neighbors, and his wife.  He is just tired.  When he accidentally hits a hare while returning home from an assignment, he decides to escape.  With the hare in tow, he begins a year of adventures wandering around Finland.  While exploring the countryside, he is chased up a tree by dogs, has his food pillaged by a raven, invites himself to a state dinner, discovers missing Russian military equipment, fights a forest fire, and drags a cow through the mud, all with the hare as his faithful companion. Paasilinna’s novel is funny at times, tragic at times, but is well worth reading at all times.  I highly recommend it.

France – A Philosophy of Walking – By Frederic Gros – Translated by John Howe – Illustrated by Clifford Harper – Verso Press: London, New York, 2015. A beautiful book on the joys of walking. It describes some of the great walkers in history, including Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Rousseau, Thoreau, Nerval, Kant, and Gandhi. They walked to think, to experience, to feel joy, to escape the demands of social pressures, and to revive themselves in nature.

Also from France – Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea – By Jules Verne – Barnes & Noble 2002.

Japan – The Sound of the Mountain – By Yasunari Kawabata – Vintage International, 1970. The Sound of the Mountain is Kawabata’s greatest writing. Its imagery is poetic, describing even the simplest of scenes–like a tree or a branch of leave–in words that allow acute visualization.  The depth of feeling in this novel is raw and rich, as Shingo (the main character) attempts to navigate the aging process. True to Kawabata’s form, he does not hold back when describing the messiness of everyday life. But this is mixed with Shingo’s growing appreciation for the simple things in life: a tree in his garden, the mountain that he sees and hears each night, a branch, the rain.  Along the way, Shingo also learns that his family is important, or at least of growing importance to those who are aging. 

Also from Japan – Thousand Cranes – By Yasunari Kawabata – Translated by Edward G. Seidensticker – Vintage International, 1958.

Russia – Heart of a Dog – By Mikhail Bulgakov – Translated by Mirra Ginsburg – Grove Press, 1987. Heart of a Dog reads on many levels.  On one level, it follows Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, illustrating Bulgakov’s thoughts on the science of eugenics. A street mutt named Sharik has human glands from a criminal transplanted into it, transforming the dog into a man. But not just an ordinary man. Sharik becomes a vulgar, foul-mouthed, vodka drinking, thief who quotes Engles and begins to destroy the lives of his creators. To save themselves, the scientists have to transform him back into a dog. 

On a second level, it is a hilarious comedy. The story is told from the perspective of a dog that is transformed into a man, then changed back into a dog. As a man, Sharik is a horrible example of a human being. He is perpetually outside of the moral standards of his creators, swearing, drinking, failing to control his urine stream, and chasing cats. Since his skill is apparent, he is eventually appointed the head of a governmental department in charge of getting rid of stray cats in the city. As a dog in the doctors’ house, he is content, happy, and loyal. 

On a third level, the novella is a satire on the Russian revolution and the creation of the new Soviet citizen. 

I highly recommend this book.  It’s a fun read.

Sweden –  A Man Called Ove –  By Fredrik Backman,  2012.  We all have a man called Ove in our lives. He is the old, grump next door who comments every time our grass gets too high. But he is also hard working, driven by principles, and full of integrity. Backman has captured Ove perfectly in a heartwarming tale of an old man grieving the loss of his wife. In the process, he adopts a wayward cat and befriends the young neighbors whose inability to do-it-themselves makes him wonder how they are going to get along in the world. The story is moving, hilarious, and quite an enjoyable read.

United States – The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger – 1945. J.D. Salinger wrote the best opening sentence in American literature, or at least one of the best: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Cooperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” This sentence introduces a wonderful piece of American 20th Century literature. The main character, Holden Caulfield, grew up in the American dream. He lived in a wealthy section of New York City, attended private schools, had nice clothes which others liked to borrow, owned the best luggage, and had cash to spend.  Yet, as Salinger points out by the end of the novel, the reality of life does not fit into the dream. Along the way we learn more about the “phoniness” of the wealthy ideals, the competitiveness of prep schools, the drive to humiliate those who can’t quite keep up, and the willingness to sell out for money. He also points out those little genuine moments that make us truly happy, like dancing with your sister, giving money to nuns collecting for the poor, helping kids in a museum, and watching a merry-go-round. In the end, we see Salinger’s genius, which is much like the genius of the beat writers. He is able to point out the simple things that make life better and highlight those fake dreams that create tension and falsity.

Also from the United States – Upstream: Selected Essays – By Mary Oliver – Penguin Books, 2016 – A wonderfully beautiful collection of essays by a favorite American poet.  A Thousand Mornings – By Mary Oliver – Penguin Books, 2012. The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway – 1926.