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


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.


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)


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

City of Saints and Thieves
Natalie C. Anderson

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

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)

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

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

Juan Gabriel Vásquez, translated by Anne McLean

The Shape of Bones
Daniel Galera

A Tale for the Time Being
Ruth Ozeki

A Word for Love
Emily Robbins

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

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

Karl Ove Knausgaard

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

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

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]


It’s What’s Inside That Counts, Right? Here’s a Resource to Help Us Live That Way [—at A Life Overseas]

Inside-JobCome join me at A Life Overseas for my full post on a helpful book written by a friend and former missionary.

Stephen W. Smith wrote Inside Job for leaders, leaders who find themselves trying to “climb the slippery, treacherous slope of success” and too often falling with a crash, landing in a heap below.

Stephen was once among them. When he began life after graduate school, he says, “I developed an addiction to work that was applauded by every organization I worked for in my career. I was hooked—as every addiction hooks a person.” For Stephen, that work included his service on the mission field.

The solution, he writes, is to redefine success and to prioritize the care of one’s soul, what he calls “the work within the work.” Using the “Great Eight Virtues” listed in 2 Peter 1 as his foundation, in Inside Job Stephen presents the need for emotional and spiritual transformation and fleshes out what must be done to bring it about—”a process of learning, adjusting, repenting and starting anew with courageous convictions.”

The work within the work includes finding rhythm (not balance) in life, saying “no” in light of our limitations, recognizing the need for Sabbath rest, and understanding and managing transitions.

For many of us, this will require a nearly 180-degree turnaround. . . .

Finish reading at

A Much Too Long (like This Title) List of Place- and Culture-Themed Coloring Books for Adults and Colorists of All Ages (but It Could Be a Whole Lot Longer)


OK, here’s the deal. Since adult coloring books are all the rage now, and because there are studies that show that coloring can reduce anxiety and stress, I decided I’d search Amazon to see what titles I could come up with on the topics of travel, places, cultures, and the like.

After I came up with 30 or so, I was feeling pretty good about myself, but then a few things happened. First, my tendency to be obsessive about lists kicked in and I felt the need to make my list not just longer, but all-inclusive. Then I realized that if I wanted to include designs and patterns (Indian, Celtic, Arabic, etc.) I’d never be done, so I eliminated them, as much as it pained me . . . because a lot of those book are pretty cool. But just when my list seemed more manageable, I discovered the whole library of Dover coloring books. I was bombarded with all their history-themed offerings, and I had to decide what made a coloring book “adult” rather than “for kids.” I put some more titles in, left some out (more pain), and expanded my category from adults to “colorists,” a term I see thrown around by publishers. I figure it means people who take their coloring seriously, even as they use it to wind down, people who are more-mature colorers who choose detailed pictures that can accommodate sharpened pencils, not just fat Crayons: colorists. Of course detailed pictures would include all those intricate designs and patterns. . . . Did I mention how much it pains me to leave them out?

So after all that, here’s the list I’ve come up with. It’s nearly 200 entries long, and it’s caused me no small amount of anxiety to put it together. It wasn’t just finding them all, but also arranging them (I gave up on working too hard on that), trying to get all the links straight, and realizing that my list is outdated before I hit the publish button.

What I’m trying to say is that my efforts to put together an exhaustive list have left me exhausted . . . and stressed.

I guess I need to order a coloring book so I can relax. Now, what about colored pencils? Is 24 enough, or should I go with 500?








Latin America




North America/United States







[photo: “Crayons de couleur,” by Nicolas Buffler, used under a Creative Commons license]

“As Soon as I Fell”: Tumbling off the Missionary Pedestal

41FnzYpGVPLI have two new friends I’d like to introduce you to. Their names are Andy and Kay Bruner.

I first met up with Andy not long ago through email when he helped me with some of the technical details of writing for A Life Overseas. Then, a few weeks later, I got to know his wife, Kay—and got to know Andy better—by reading her memoir As Soon as I Fell.

I’m not usually a fast reader, but I started her book in the afternoon after work, kept going until I fell asleep that night, and grabbed it off my nightstand and finished it when I woke up in the morning.

It’s a fun read, as Kay tells how her family of four (in time, growing to six) moved to Papua New Guinea to learn about village life. Then they relocated to the Solomon Islands, where she and Andy worked to translate the Bible.

On their first trip to their new home in the Solomon Islands, Andy went ahead on a cargo ship, while Kay and their young daughter and son made their way on the torpedo-shaped Ocean Express, a boat that rolled violently in rough seas. After someone gave the children hard-boiled eggs to eat, and the waves grew larger in open water, Kay writes that she made her “first ship-travel resolution.”

Never, ever let anyone eat boiled eggs on a ship.  I’ve heard that there are two stages of seasickness. First, you are afraid you will die. Then you are afraid you won’t. When you are on the receiving end of egg vomit from two small children, both stages pretty much hit simultaneously.

This was not the only stomach-churning adventure that they had. In fact, throwing up is something of a common theme in Kay’s writing. As I read through the book, I thought of playing a drinking game, taking a swig (of Maalox, of course) every time someone lost her lunch. The nausea seemed to reach its apex when Kay was pregnant with their third child. While describing the intricacies of prenatal care in an island town, she says that she “was sick as [she] never knew it was possible to be sick.” “The smell of the kitchen cabinets made me throw up,” she writes. “For the next four months, I threw up. Throwing up was my life.”

As Soon as I Fell is also a challenging read. Kay writes candidly about the times when the difficulties were no longer humorous, when reaching a breaking point was not a concern but a reality. She tells how her upbringing had led her to strive for perfection, and when that wasn’t possible, to “perform at any cost.” This was part of what led her to mission work, but it was also what led her to a place where she couldn’t continue any more.

In the middle section of the book, she shares journal entries, giving more day-to-day details of their lives as Bible translators.

Then, returning to a more reflective style of writing, she introduces the book’s third section with

How do you write about something so horrible, so disgusting, that it makes you feel like you’ve been vomited on? Something that makes you feel like a bag of garbage, thrown on the side of the road?

This time, the nausea was worse than seasickness. Kay had already written about the strains on her marriage with Andy, fueled by the unhealthy ways each dealt with stress. Now she had discovered that her husband was addicted to pornography.

My heart breaks for what the two of them went through.

There were the struggles that caused them to leave the field. There was the leaving itself. And there was the difficult task of returning to the leadership of their mission organization and life in the States.

While you can read Kay’s perspective of their experiences in As Soon as I Fell, Andy is open to sharing about it as well. In his blog post “Want to See What a Porn-Addicted Missionary Looks Like?” he tells of the prevalence of pornography among Christians and discusses ways to confront the issue. One is to open up conversations about pornography so that those who need help will be willing to ask for it.

Of his addiction, I would have to paraphrase the English chaplain John Bradford: “But for the grace of God, there goes Craig Thompson.”

After returning to the States, the Bruners began attending a new church. Kay spoke to a pastor there whom she’d not met before. “I wanted to tell him a little of my story,” she writes, “but all I could say was, ‘I’m a missionary,’ before I started sobbing.” That brought tears to my eyes, too.

I am so glad that Kay was able to tell more of her story in As Soon as I Fell. I’m so glad for her honesty and that of her husband. I’m so glad I have two new friends.

Now I hope to meet them some day.

(Kay Bruner, As Soon as I Fell: A Memoir, CreateSpace, 2014)

Of the Translation of Books . . .


Here’s a mystery I wonder if you can solve.

Who holds the top spot as the most translated author (at least in the last 30 or so years)? Take a guess. I’ll bet you a shiny new nickel that you won’t get it right.

How about I give you some hints? If you thought it was Shakespeare, sorry (hint). In fact, translations of her (hint, hint) works outnumber the Bard’s by nearly 70%. The answer really is a mystery (hint, hint, hint). Got it? Give up?

Here you go: The holder of the top spot is none other than Agatha Christie.

Who says so? Well, the ranking is part of UNESCO’s Index Translationum, which has been collecting translation data since 1932. Since the online database dates from only 1979, it’s not exhaustive, but it does give us a good snapshot of more-recent translations.

So if Christie is in the top spot, and Shakespeare is number three, who else rounds out the top ten? Glad you asked.

  1. Agatha Christie (British, English)
  2. Jules Verne (French)
  3. William Shakespeare (British, English)
  4. Enid Blyton (British, English)
  5. Barbara Cartland (British, English)
  6. Danielle Steele (American, English)
  7. Vladimir Lenin (Russian)
  8. Hans Christian Anderson (Danish)
  9. Stephen King (American, English)
  10. Jacob Grimm (German, followed closely by Wilhelm, the other Brother Grimm)

Some of you are probably thinking, “Why isn’t the Apostle Paul on this list?” That’s because while the Bible is the most translated book in history, Paul’s contributions aren’t published as stand-alones. That leaves Paul well behind Christie, whose books number over 80. Fair enough.

Following are some other top-tens from the Index Translationum.

Top source languages:

  1. English (at over 1.2 million books, English has more translations than the next 49 languages combined)
  2. French
  3. German
  4. Russian
  5. Italian
  6. Spanish
  7. Swedish
  8. Japanese
  9. Danish
  10. Latin


Top target languages:

  1. German
  2. French
  3. Spanish
  4. English
  5. Japanese
  6. Dutch
  7. Russian
  8. Portuguese
  9. Polish
  10. Swedish


Top authors translated in China (I picked China because it has the most people in the world):

  1. Dale Carnegie (American, English)
  2. Hans Christian Andersen (Danish)
  3. Jules Verne (French)
  4. Maxim Gorky (Russian)
  5. Alexandre Dumas (French)
  6. Leo Tolstoy (Russian)
  7. Arthur Conan Doyle (British, English)
  8. Thomas Brezina (Australian, English)
  9. Charles Dickens (British, English)
  10. Victor Hugo (French)


Top authors translated in the US (because that’s where I live):

  1. Rudolf Steiner (Austrian, German)
  2. Jacob Grimm (German)
  3. Wilhelm Grimm (German)
  4. Georges Simenon (Belgian, French)
  5. Hans Christian Anderson (Danish)
  6. Pope John Paul II (Italian)
  7. Plato (Greek)
  8. Dana Meachen Rau (American, English, translated into Spanish)
  9. Anton Chekov (Russian)
  10. Bobbie Kalman (Hungarian-born American, English, translated into Spanish; French translations make her number one for Canada)

[photo: “Libreria Gozzini,” by hjl, used under a Creative Commons license]

When Grandma’s Lap Is Far Away


Diane Stortz knows a thing or two about being separated from family. She’s the co-author of Parents of Missionaries: How to Thrive and Stay Connected when Your Children and Grandchildren Serve Cross-Culturally.

She also knows a thing or two about children’s books, having written Words to Dream OnThe Sweetest Story Bible, and a couple for Roman Downey’s Little Angels series, among others.

By my reckoning, that means that she knows two things or four about finding books to send to grandchildren overseas.

If you’d like some good advice, go to her blog and read her five points on what to look for when choosing the right storybook for children.

And at Christian Children’s Authors, she puts in a plug for recordable children’s books. Maybe it’s because I don’t have grandchildren yet, but I never knew there was such a thing. What a great idea for staying in touch with faraway granddaughters and grandsons, nieces and nephews.

In this post, Stortz mentions three publishers that produce recordable books: Hallmark, DaySpring, and Publications International. Using that as my starting point, here’s a sampling of what I found (it includes lots of grandmas and lots of bears)—

Conversations to Keep: Grandma and Me
That’s What Grandmas Do
My Grandpa and Me
Guess How Much I Miss You

Guess How Much I Love You
Under the Same Moon
What Aunts Do Best/What Uncles Do Best
I Love You So Much

I Love You Head to Toe
Wherever You Are: My Love Will Find You
Bright and Beautiful
All Day Long with Jesus

Bedtime Prayers and Promises
Sesame Street, Together at Heart
If . . . 

And here are a couple for sending back the other way—

I Love You Grandma
My Grandma Is Special

Susan Adcox, “Grandparents Expert” at, writes that Hallmark recordable books are “pure magic.” “What child wouldn’t be entranced to open a storybook and hear it read in a grandparent’s voice?” she asks.

She goes on to compliment the recording process, calling it “practically foolproof.”

Let’s Hear It for Mundaneness!


You’ve seen those images of all the fish swimming in one direction with one fish swimming agains the flow. The message: That one fish is the only one going the right way, despite the crowd.

It’s not always a lot of fun being that fish, especially when it seems as if you’re the one going in the wrong direction.

During what would become our last State-side service, I and my wife had decided that our time as missionaries would come to an end. But before making that public, I attended a missionary convention held by our fellowship of churches. I remember sitting with several thousand others in Lexington’s Rupp Arena, listening to a plenary speaker give a passionate call to the audience of potential missionaries. “Let someone else build the houses,” he said. “You follow Christ, go into ministry.”

Let someone else be a doctor or an attorney and argue cases in court. You go follow Christ. Let someone else teach in the public schools. You follow Christ. Listen, there will always be people who will go into all those other occupations. But there are a rare few who will say, “I’ll follow my Christ wherever he leads me.”

I’d said similar things, at least to myself. I should be on the front lines. Others would fill in behind. I’d told myself I could never settle for regular work. How could I ever be satisfied living a commonplace life in the US?

And yet, here I was traveling in the opposite direction, burned up and burned out. I was leaving the mission field, not heading to it. I was stepping away, hoping someone might hire me to build that house or teach that class. . . and in time, hoping just to get hired, for just about any job.

Five years ago, David Platt, mega-church pastor and now president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board, wrote Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream. I have a copy on my bookshelf, but I’ve never read it. I’ve heard good things about Platt’s book, and I’m sure it’s challenging. But it’s not the kind of challenge I’m looking for right now. The book I chose to read instead has a different kind of title. It’s The God of the Mundane: Reflections on Ordinary Life for Ordinary People.

Pastor Matt B. Redmond wrote The God of the Mundane as a response to what he had heard himself preach many times:

Change your world. Change the world of someone. Anyone. Sell everything. Sell anything. Give it away. Do something crazy. Be radical. Make people stand up and notice. Take a risk. Jesus moved from heaven to earth and gave up his life and yet you—you just go about your daily life.

But in time, his ponderings, expressed in his blog, Echoes and Stars, led him to ask if there is a God for the bulk of people who live out their lives performing mundane tasks. “Is there a God, for instance, for those who are not changing anything but diapers?”

In his book, Redmond answers the question with a “Yes,” writing to and about stay-at-home moms, dental hygienists, plumbers, children taking care of elderly parents, and bankers. In a blog post, he addresses the youth of a church where he once ministered:

Don’t be afraid of being small. Too often I probably made it sound like if you were really serious about your faith, you should think about ministry. Being a teacher or doctor or farmer was not worthy of your time. Well, that’s just stupid. Don’t be afraid to be in a “small” part of the kingdom. Be ordinary and unknown and be content. That’s more radical than anything else you will hear in the church today.

When he wrote The God of the Mundane, one of the images in Redmond’s mind was of a banker, frustrated and stuck in a job he doesn’t love. After writing his book, he left his career in ministry and became that frustrated banker.

Before reading his book, I had left my position as a missionary and had become frustrated, too. So often in Christian circles, the missionary life is considered the opposite of mundaneness. Redmond refers to it that way, too. But he doesn’t believe that a mundane life, lived in devotion to God, is unimportant.

Neither does he believe that we should stop asking people if they are “willing to give it all and go overseas as a missionary.” “It’s not a bad question to ask,” he says. “There is no question in my mind that this question needs to be out there.” But he also wants other questions asked:

[A]re you willing to be numbered among the nameless believers in history who lived in obscurity? Do you have the courage to be forgotten by everyone but God and the heavenly host? Are you willing to be found only by God as faithful right where you are? Are you willing to have no one write a book about you and what you did in the name of Christ?

When someone studying for a non-missionary career asked him his advice on selecting a missionary biography, Redmond suggested she begin by reading one about a Christian banker.

By that I meant she needed to read a book about a Christian living a mundane life. She told me she could not find one. Figures.

I would characterize Redmond as someone who is trying to be content in his present occupation, but who is not satisfied. He struggles with wanting to do something that better fits who he is, but he doesn’t want to turn his back on those like him who are not doing the BIG THING. He admits that it’s often hard for him to accept his own advice with confidence.

I find myself in the same place. I miss so much of being a missionary and still want to be a part of that work and community. And yet I don’t believe that God loved me more, valued me more then than he does now.

I still have my copy of Radical. I plan to read it someday. Someday, but not today. Today I’m reading and rereading Redmond’s book.

Maybe he’s written the closest thing you’ll find to a biography about a “Christian banker.” But rather than writing about something he’d lived, he wrote it first and now he’s living it. And as he’s been writing in his blog, it’s the living of it that has given him a real understanding of his own words.

Life often works out that way. Figures.

(Barry Cameron, closing session, National Missionary Convention, Lexington, KY, November 21, 2010; Matt B. Redmond, The God of the Mundane: Reflections on Ordinary Life for Ordinary People, Kalos, 2012; Matt B. Redmond, “Tuesday’s 10: What I’d Like to Tell My Former Youth,” Echoes and Stars, August 13, 2012)

[photo: “Fish Vane,” by Mike Gifford, used under a Creative Commons license]

Food for the Soul, Just around the Corner


I may have to stop reading Dave Lewis’s blog at Sure, it’s an amazing resource for gleaning insights from around the Web on member care and cross-cultural life, but it’s starting to get in the way of my originality. I’m particularly frustrated with his “Casual Friday Resources.” Lately, it seems as if when I come up with a new idea to write about, the same idea pops up on Casual Friday, and I see that others have thought my thoughts before me . . . often in more complete and coherent ways.

Take for instance, my last post on missionary expectations. Since I was focusing on Sue Eenigenburg and Robynn Bliss’s Expectations and Burnout: Women Surviving the Great Commission, I knew that what I had to say would more or less be a reworking of their research and observations. But I wanted to bring attention to the topic and their book, because, you know, not enough people are getting the word out.

As I was putting my thoughts together, Dave linked to a post by Bliss on the blog Velvet Ashes, “an online community of women serving overseas.” In “Burnout: A Retrospect,” Bliss writes, “Looking back on it now, I can honestly say that burnout is the best thing that ever happened to me.” That link inspired me. The folks at Velvet Ashes and I are thinking in the same direction.

But then, just yesterday, Dave linked to Velvet Ashes again, this time to an interview with Eenigenburg, the other author of Expectations and Burnout. Come to find out, Velvet Ashes is doing a two-month series on the book as they read through it one or two chapters at a time. Come on, guys! What am I going to do?

All joking aside, here is what I’m going to do.

Many times I’ve heard variations on the well-known words of D. T. Niles, a Methodist evangelist from Ceylon, who wrote,

Evangelism is witness. It is one beggar telling another beggar where to get food. The Christian does not offer out of his bounty. He has no bounty. He is simply a guest at his Master’s table, and, as evangelist, he calls others, too.

I figure it’s much the same with promoting member care. I’m just a beggar letting other beggars know that food is out there for hungry souls. So head on over to and Velvet AshesThere’s some great feasting going on at each of these. And as I find more resources, I’ll continue to let you know about them, joining others who are doing the same.

And as far as originality goes, there can be all sorts of room for creativity in how we point others in the right direction.


(Robynn Bliss, “Burnout: A Retrospect,” Velvet Ashes, March 8, 2015; D. T. Niles, That They May Have Life, Harper, 1951)

[photo: “EAT,” by mst7022, used under a Creative Commons license]