Saigon: An Epic Novel of Vietnam – a novel that weaves together the stories of American, Vietnamese, and French families from 1925 to 1975. For someone like me, who was born after the end of the American/Vietnam war and knew even less about the French colonization of Indochina, it was a good introduction to the complex history of Vietnam in the 1900s.
Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam – a beautiful memoir and my favorite read of the month. The author was born in Vietnam but fled with his family first to Indonesia and then to the United States after his father was released from Vietcong prison. Almost 20 years later, the author returns to Vietnam to bike the length of the country, visiting family and chasing memories along the way. The memoir weaves together the author’s experiences, past and more recent, with his questions about belonging and identity. I very much recommend this book, whether you plan to visit Vietnam or not.
Vietnam: Rising Dragon – a nonfiction exploration of the economic, political, and cultural realities of more recent-day Vietnam. At times, I was thrown by Vietnam, particularly by juxtapositions of communism and shops like Prada. This book helped me better understand (or at least helped me focus my questions about) how the country has been changing over the past decades (and has in other ways remained very much the same.) I read this book towards the end of my stay in Vietnam and at the times found myself skimming because the depth just felt like too much information for my last week – but that was me, not the book. If you’re seriously interested in (almost) present-day Vietnam, this would be a great read.
Underground is a collection of interviews of the victims of 1995 sarin attacks in the Tokyo subway system. The interviews don’t just provide information about the attacks from the perspective of those impacted, but also paint a picture of the daily lives and priorities that were interrupted on that day.
Geisha, A Life is the memoir of Mineko Iwasaki, who lived in Kyoto’s Gion Kobu district during the 1960s and 70s and was a highly successful geisha through her retirement at age 29. Iwasaki was a chief informant for Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of Geisha which (somewhat confusingly) is a novel, not a memoir. Geisha, A Life is a less sensational (but still fascinating) peek into the daily life of Iwasaki from childhood through her retirement.
I also read and enjoyed two novels this month, both of which unfolded slowly as they explored the quirks of their characters. The Lake is a novel set in modern-day Tokyo that slowly reveals the past of its two main characters as they grow closer. Norwegian Wood is a coming-of-age novel set in Tokyo in the 1960s with themes of love, sex, and death.
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Only in Spain is the modern-day memoir of an Australian woman who falls in love with flamenco and moves to Spain to continue dancing. It’s a fun, light, easy read.
The Shadow of the Wind is a grand, twisting novel set in Barcelona during the 1950s. It has a huge cast of characters and and a gritty, winding plot that touches on the impact of the fascist rule of Spain following the civil war.
Cathedral of the Sea is historical novel that follows the life of a fictional serf who eventually becomes a wealthy money lender. Occasionally (okay, often), I felt like the author was sprinkling unlikely social mobility on our main character so that he could describe yet another aspect of Barcelona life during the 14th century. But, in the end, I didn’t really mind so much, because I enjoyed the peeks into various social strata.
Homage to Catalonia is a memoir by George Orwell (yes, that George Orwell) that describes his experiences serving in the POUM militia during the Spanish Civil War. I loved this book for its gorgeous language, used to describe both the tedium of the battlefield and the violent rifts that grew between the various anarchist, socialist, and communist parties who were theoretically united in opposing the fascists.
Book of Clouds is a somewhat surreal novel set in modern-day Berlin, from the perspective of a Mexican woman who has been living there for several years. It dips into Nazi and Stasi history, and explores how the past reflects into the present. I definitely recommend this book.
Goodbye to Berlin is a classic collection of interwoven short stories set in Berlin during the 1930s, as the Nazis were just beginning to come to power. This book was the inspiration for Cabaret, the musical turned movie.
Stasiland is a narrative documenting stories of former East Germany citizens and Stasi officials during the GDR. It’s written by an Australian author, and intermixed with the stories are her own reactions and experiences during her research. It’s well-written and a fascinating.
Leaving Berlin is a spy thriller set in Berlin in the first years of its time as a divided city, during the Berlin Airlift.