Cross-cultural Books for the First Year of the Rest of Your Life

November 12, 2017 § Leave a comment

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Did you know that penguins (the birds that swim instead of fly) thrive in saltwater environments because they have a gland above their eyes that filters salt from their blood, and then the salt is excreted through their bills, either as a drip or by a sneeze?

And did you know that Penguin (the publisher that’s part of Penguin Random House) puts out a list each year aimed at first-year college students, called “Penguin Books for First-Year Experience and Common Reading Programs“?

(The rest of this post is going to elaborate on the second fact above, though the first one is pretty cool.)

Many colleges and universities have first-year-experience (FYE) programs aimed at laying an introductory foundation for beginning students. Programs often have as their focus a course taken by all new students and may also include a common text that students share in reading. Chosen well, this book expands the world of incoming students and creates avenues for growth and discussion.

Look at Penguin’s 2017-18 catalog of books recommended as common readings and you’ll find plenty of award-winning works, filled with inspiration and covering a myriad of challenging topics, and you don’t need to be a college freshman to appreciate the width and depth represented there. And within that list, you’ll also find a lot with cross-cultural and international themes—so many, in fact, that they’re worth listing here.

I’ve divided them into the categories that Penguin uses in its catalog, showing the title and author, followed by the place or situation, if not already apparent. I can’t personally vouch for all of these books, since, regrettably, I haven’t read any of them. But I can certainly say that I’d like to use these titles to start a to-read list . . . or maybe a list for Christmas.

Nonfiction:

In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom
Yeonmi Park with Maryanne Vollers

It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War
Lynsey Addario

The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border
Francisco Cantú
(at the Mexico/US border)

Fiction:

The Association of Small Bombs
Karan Mahajan
(India and the US)

City of Saints and Thieves
Natalie C. Anderson
(Kenya)

Everything I Never Told You
Celeste Ng
(Chinese Americans)

Exit West
Mohsin Hamid
(imagined world of refugees)

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
Mohsin Hamid

Quiet until the Thaw
Alexandra Fuller
(Native Americans)

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon
Fatima Bhutto
(Afghanistan and Pakistan)

Contemporary Fiction:

And the Mountains Echoed
Khaled Hosseini
(Kabul, Paris, San Francisco, and the Greek island of Tinos)

The Cellist of Sarajevo
Steven Galloway

Don’t Tell Me You’re Afraid
Giuseppe Catozzella
(a Somali girl and the Olympics)

Ghachar Ghochar
Vivek Shanbhag, translated by Srinath Perur
(Bangalore)

Girl in Translation
Jean Kwok
(an immigrant from Hong Kong to Brooklyn)

Home Fire
Kamila Shamsie
(Pakistani immigrants in London and Massachusetts)

How I Became a North Korean
Krys Lee
(at the Chinese border with North Korea)

The Idiot
Elif Batuman
(immigrant and international students at Harvard)

In the Language of Miracles
Rajia Hassib
(Egyptian immigrants to the US)

Lucky Boy
Shanthi Sekaran
(an undocumented Mexican immigrant and Indian-American in the US)

Redeployment
Phil Klay
(US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and returning home)

Refuge
Dina Nayeri
(an immigrant from Iran to the US to Europe)

Reputations
Juan Gabriel Vásquez, translated by Anne McLean
(Colombia)

The Shape of Bones
Daniel Galera
(Brazil)

A Tale for the Time Being
Ruth Ozeki
(Tokyo)

A Word for Love
Emily Robbins
(Syria)

General Nonfiction

Excellent Daughters: The Secret Lives of the Young Women Who Are Transforming the Arab World
Katherine Zoepf

A School for My Village: A Promise to the Orphans of Nyaka
Twesigye Jackson Kaguri with Susan Urbanek Linville
(Uganda)

Shooting Ghosts: A U.S. Marine, a Combat Photographer, and Their Journey Back from War
Thomas J. Brennan and Finbarr O’Reilly
(Afghanistan and Iraq)

The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine
Ben Ehrenreich

Memoir and Biography

Autumn
Karl Ove Knausgaard
(Sweden)

The Bosnia List: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Return
Kenan Trebinčević and Susan Shapiro

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
Daniel James Brown

Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West
Blaine Harden

The Girl from the Metropol Hotel: Growing Up in Communist Russia
Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Looking for Palestine: Growing Up Confused in an Arab-American Family
Najla Said

An Ordinary Man: An Autobiography
Paul Rusesabagina and Tom Zoellner
(Rwanda)

Shoot like a Girl: One Woman’s Dramatic Fight in Afghanistan and on the Home Front
Mary Jennings Hegar

Stealing Buddha’s Dinner
Bich Minh Nguyen
(Vietnamese immigrant in Michigan)

Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League
Dan-el Padilla Peralta

Wine to Water: How One Man Saved Himself While Trying to Save the World
Doc Hendley

You Will Not Have My Hate
Antoine Leiris
(Paris)

And finally, a few books on listening and telling stories, all from David Isay, the founder of StoryCorps:

Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work

Listening Is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life from the StoryCorps Project

Ties That Bind: Stories of Love and Gratitude from the First Ten Years of StoryCorps

[photo: “Happy World Penguin Day,” by Christopher Michel, used under a Creative Commons license]

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