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What the world is reading this summer

Monitor correspondents around the globe share what is flying off the shelves in their region – as well as books that might help you understand their part of the world a bit better.

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    People demonstrate against anti-immigrant violence in Johannesburg, South Africa. The book 'A Man of Good Hope' tells one immigrant's story.
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Will Russian supersleuth Erast Fandorin be able to help Scotland Yard crack a spate of London murders? 

Answering that question is occupying more than a few fans in Russia who’ve packed the latest novel about the fictional 19th-century detective in their vacation bags. 

Summer reading is a hallowed pursuit around the globe – a treasured vehicle for losing oneself in other worlds. So we asked Monitor correspondents to find out what’s getting read near them. We hope their insights will pique your interest as you step away from your own daily routine – whether it’s to peer into the life of a Chinese TV reporter or follow the coming of age of a feisty girl in poverty-stricken rural Mexico.

– Amelia Newcomb, international news editor

SOUTH AFRICA

What is it that drives South Africa – that “rainbow nation” of Nelson Mandela – to periodic bursts of extraordinary violence against foreigners? 

In some ways, the answer is simple: poverty, inequality, toxic politics, the haunting echoes of a dark history. 

But there is something vastly unsatisfying about viewing from 30,000 feet up a conflict that is, at its heart, profoundly intimate – a story of neighbors turning against neighbors and families cracked apart by national borders. 

So I find myself turning to writers who have examined this question at close range. Few books take on the subject more thoughtfully than Jonny Steinberg’s elegant biography A Man of Good Hope, the chronicle of a Somali entrepreneur named Asad and the life he forges for himself as a small-time shopkeeper in the townships of South Africa. 

Amid the harrowing tales of the violence Asad encounters there – his shops looted, his business partners murdered – are moments that pierce the heart: Why, in spite of the great difficulties, do so many people around the world continue to migrate?

As Asad explains, “I knew that if I went back [to Somalia] life would be the same, the same, the same until I die.... To stay in South Africa is to keep that possibility of something different alive.” 

Those words, and Mr. Steinberg’s vividly narrated book more generally, offered me an important reminder about immigration in both South Africa and the rest of the world. 

Ultimately, crossing borders is as much a journey of the imagination as it is of geography, a promise we all make to ourselves that something better is still to come.

– Ryan Lenora Brown
 Johannesburg, South Africa 

EUROPE 

Current affairs are defining summer reading habits across Europe. 

A German historian lamented to me last year that Germans know nothing about the intertwined history of Ukraine and Russia. But that may no longer be the case: One book in their travel totes this summer is Travels to Russia and Ukraine, a series of essays that journalist Joseph Roth filed from Kiev, Moscow, and beyond in the 1920s. Part of the book’s popularity lies in how topical it remains 100 years later.

Britain has just undergone a stunning general election, which saw conservative incumbent David Cameron win a surprise majority. And with incessant speculation over whether Britain will remain in the European Union – and whether Scotland will remain in the United Kingdom – it’s little surprise that a political tome is getting a lot of attention this summer.

The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It, by Owen Jones, dissects the levers of power from “the lobbies of Westminster to the newsrooms, boardrooms, and trading rooms of Fleet Street.”

In France, meanwhile, the sixth novel from French author Michel Houellebecq, Submission, came out the day of the Islamic extremist attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. The book, which imagines France living under sharia (Islamic law) in the not-too-distant future, sparked controversy even before its publication. Its subsequent popularity reveals the ongoing search for France’s European identity in the face of immigration and religious diversity.

Personally, I’ve sought to fortify my knowledge of history by returning to where I left off in Tony Judt’s comprehensive Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. But by the time my vacation rolls around I hope I’ll have something lighter for my beach bag. Perhaps I’ll join the hordes reading Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, a thriller set in 17th-century Amsterdam.

– Sara Miller Llana, Paris

RUSSIA

In Russia, it’s a summer of scary headlines, economic crisis, and growing international isolation. Perhaps it says something that the two top fiction bestsellers this season are not set in today’s Russia at all, but in completely different eras that are, nevertheless, filled with deep political complexities and existential dread.

Planet Water, by Boris Akunin, is the latest in a popular series about a fictional Czarist-era detective, Erast Fandorin, who navigates the darkest corners of pre-revolutionary Russia to solve the most complicated murders. 

Despite the unavoidable comparisons made between Erast and Sherlock Holmes, Erast’s world is unmistakably Russian, evoking both nostalgia and a touch of dread about the vanished world of the czars. 

The other fiction blockbuster here is the latest in a series about a post-apocalyptic Moscow. Metro 2035, by
 Dmitry Glukhovsky, follows the lives of a handful of survivors who make it into Moscow’s famously deep metro before World War III virtually wipes out humanity. The book carries readers away from today’s woes into a world that’s recognizably Russian, yet incredibly different.

For those with a taste for relevant nonfiction, a new book about Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, by American author Ellendea Proffer Teasley, is sparking lively discussions among Russia’s intelligentsia this summer. Brodsky Among Us has been available in English for some time, but it was only published in Russia this spring to mark what would have been the poet’s 75th birthday.

The author, who became acquainted with Mr. Brodsky after he was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1972, works hard to separate the myth from the man. Once demonized by the Russian government as a traitor, Brodsky has since been claimed as an authentic Russian hero.

As is often the case in Russia, a poet’s fate reveals much about the nature of both his society and the state. 

– Fred Weir, Moscow

CHINA

Two bestsellers in China are Seeing, by Chai Jing, a famous TV reporter, and Growing Old Before Growing Up, a volume of memoirs by kung fu star Jackie Chan.

Ms. Chai made a name for herself as a reporter and anchorwoman on the state-run China Central Television network. What sets her apart is the engaged and emotional way she speaks to her interviewees, breaking the stony-faced mold of official reporting. 

Her book recounts her career so far – she is in her mid-30s – explaining how she learned her trade and recalling particularly noteworthy interviews. Through her conversations with ordinary people, Chai offers readers personal vignettes of a changing China.

Mr. Chan’s rags-to-riches story has been well received in China. Moviegoers love him for his humor and athletic stunts; the Chinese government loves him because he is a rare example of Chinese soft power. His book is full of revelations that are catnip to his fans – from how he dealt with his wife when news broke of his adulterous affair to his memories of life with a Taiwanese actress.

I am currently reading Confucius and the World He Created, by Michael Schuman. After living in China for nearly nine years, I have become well aware of the influence the ancient sage still wields. But Mr. Schuman’s book, whose lively and engaging style belies the depth of research that went into it, does a dazzling job of explaining why Confucius’s teachings are so important today.

Partly, as Schuman points out, it is because the Chinese government is seeking inspiration in Confucian thought for Beijing’s authoritarian ways. But it is also because individual Chinese, increasingly dissatisfied with the materialist values that have dominated China’s economic explosion, are keen on the sort of moral compass that Confucius offered. China is never going to be a Western-style democracy. But it could do worse, perhaps, than to bring Confucius up to date.

– Peter Ford, Beijing

INDIA

Two paperback authors have dominated India’s English bestseller lists for years – much to the dismay of the literati – reflecting some of the preoccupations of the new middle class. 

Chetan Bhagat, a techie-turned-novelist, writes ordinary stories about young people navigating love and work in a way that clearly speaks to the young employed in high-tech industries. 

Then there’s Amish Tripathi, a former banker who has discovered a vast market for pulp retellings of stories from Hindu mythology. His first hit novel, The Immortals of Meluha, based on the life of Shiva, remains a bestseller five years after it was first released.

In his latest book, Scion of Ikshvaku, Mr. Tripathi turns to the Ramayana, an ancient and beloved Hindu epic that has been politicized by Hindu nationalist groups in recent decades. As the first book in a five-part series, Scion focuses on the early years of Prince Ram as he struggles with a characteristically Indian burden: duty to family. 

Readers more interested in history than myth are also rejoicing. Amitav Ghosh’s Flood of Fire, the long-awaited final installment in his splendid Ibis trilogy, is finally out. The historical saga brings together characters from India, Britain, the United States, and China in the years before the Opium Wars, illuminating a little-explored side of colonial history. A particularly eye-opening delight has been Mr. Ghosh’s meticulous reconstruction of the incredible patois that resulted from the melting pot of trade and empire in the 19th century. (See review, page 40.) 

But reading this summer in India is not all about fiction. 

Well-known journalist Coomi Kapoor has just released The Emergency, a personal account of the period between 1975 and 1977 when former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended civil rights and targeted journalists. 

“The Emergency” is likely to be the first of several books on the subject this year, as Indians commemorate the 40th anniversary of these events.

– Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar New Delhi

MEXICO

A lot of news out of Mexico over the past year – from the gruesome disappearance of 43 college students in the state of Guerrero to shootouts near tourist beach towns – has made me think of one person: Lady Di. 

I’m not referring to the former British princess, but Ladydi Garcia Martínez, a fictional character in Jennifer Clement’s 2014 novel Prayers for the Stolen.

Ladydi is a spirited girl growing up in the rural mountains of Guerrero, living what Ms. Clement calls “the anti-fairy tale.” Her town is made up almost exclusively of women: The men leave for bigger cities or migrate to the US for work, rarely returning. Education and opportunities are limited, and mothers focus on trying to make their daughters ugly with bowl cuts and stained teeth because “all the drug traffickers had to do was hear there was a pretty girl around” and they’d take her.

“Prayers for the Stolen” is rooted in more than a decade of research in often ignored spaces like women’s prisons and small southern towns. The glimpses of Ladydi as a nanny in an opulent home in Acapulco, and her friendship with a Guatemalan woman who navigated the perilous journey through Mexico as a migrant, give the story a feeling of real-life relevance.

Clement, who grew up in Mexico City, not only tells an engaging tale about coming of age and itching for change in an environment where expectations for success and happiness are low, she does so in a way that seamlessly connects the dots between the many complex issues that dominate headlines here. The story touches on topics such as poverty, migration, sex and drug trafficking, US gun policy, violence against women, and corruption. But it does so through a tale of resilience. And in many ways, that’s the most salient theme of all in Mexico today. 

– Whitney Eulich, Mexico City

IRAN

Some moments in Nazila Fathi’s The Lonely War will make you gasp at the idiosyncratic existence of a woman coming of age in revolutionary Iran. There are the “little rebellions,” such as the time she and her schoolgirl friends sneak into an apartment pool after dark. Then there is the school exam, when she is caught exposing too much hair and wearing hoop earrings under her headscarf.

Iranian women have written many books about grappling with the strictures – and inspirations – of the Islamic Republic. But Ms. Fathi’s story is gripping because it is told by a journalist who grew up as the revolution evolved. As a longtime reporter for The New York Times – and an interpreter whom I worked with in the 1990s – Fathi has license to interview everyone from passionate anti-revolutionaries to regime enforcers. It’s a job she takes on fearlessly, allowing her to tell Iran’s turbulent modern history through a remarkable cast of characters who span the country’s political and social spectrum.

She recounts the finer points of personal rebellion – such as smuggling her Bon Jovi cassette tapes into school wrapped in aluminum foil, so they looked like sandwiches – to her being followed and finally staked out by 16 agents during the violent street protests of 2009. 

The story in between those events is an insightful account of how Iran’s cultural and political divisions define the Islamic Republic today. (Fathi and her family were forced to leave Iran in 2009 because of her reporting.)

Fathi describes how, for the generation that came after those who fomented the 1979 revolution, tough restrictions turned “many law-abiding citizens into defiant rebels.” But ultimately, she writes, hers is a story “of the hope and perseverance of a nation that has never surrendered to tyranny.”

– Scott Peterson, Istanbul, Turkey

 
 
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