One of my main regrets about my time in university was choosing not to take more classes about the histories of other countries, especially those in Asia. I majored in Psychology, but I had briefly considered doing a double-major in history. Ultimately, I decided against it because I was worried it would be too complicated to fit in all my required courses for both programs and still have room for a few electives. Plus, history and psychology would have been quite the workload! Although I still had the option of taking history classes, my focus was mostly on ancient civilizations and Europe. There were several classes in Asian history that really interested me, but most of them either conflicted with my schedule or were set for 8:30 in the morning which would mean waking up at 6 am to catch my bus to school. I was interested in the class, but definitely not interested enough to wake up so early! I am really not a morning person.
I have always been interested in reading and learning about other cultures, especially countries like Japan and China. Although I’ve never really studied them properly, I find historical fiction (when it’s done well) can be fascinating and through some of those books, I have learned so much about other cultures. I was pretty excited to see this week’s topic to get a chance to discuss some of my favourite books set outside the Western world. Like many readers, I have not read nearly as many non-Western books as I have read books set in Europe or especially the US, but I have many waiting on my TBR!
Top 5 Wednesday is a meme created by Gingerreadslainey on Youtube, and is now hosted by Sam at ThoughtsOnTomes. The official GoodReads group with the weekly topics can be found here.
1) Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
I’d heard about this book a long time before I ever decided to read it, and it has ended up becoming one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read. This book is about a young girl named Chiyo who is taken from home and sold to work as a geisha around the time of WWII. I was very interested by the look into Japanese culture and especially the lives of the geisha. If I’m honest, I’m still a little confused about how much of this book is fact vs. fiction. Years after reading it, I learned there was a lawsuit initiated by one of the geisha that Arthur Golden interviewed for information as well as claims that the book was inaccurate. Either way, I thought this was a fascinating book and a compelling story. Like all historical fiction, I think it needs to be seen as a starting point to learn more, and not solid fact.
2) Shanghai Girls by Lisa See
Although I’ve always been interested in China, I know very little about the country’s history. I picked up this book because my mom read it and highly recommended it. It is about two sisters living in Shanghai who are sold as wives to American men after their father loses everything by gambling. The book follows Pearl and May as the travel from China to America, and is a powerful story both on a historical and a family dynamics level. I went into this book not expecting very much, and it ended up being one of my favourites of the year when I read it. The main characters both seemed so real that I often forgot that the book was fictional.
3) With the Light series by Keiko Tobe
I’ve mentioned this series a few times before, but since it seems to be quite obscure, I thought it was worth mentioning again! This is a manga series about a Japanese family who are raising a young son diagnosed with autism. The series consists of 8 volumes that cover from the time the child is born, through his diagnosis, and into his teenage years. The series covers all kinds of issues including how children with disabilities and their families are treated by the school system, society in general, and even their own family members! Unfortunately, the author passed away and the final volume was published posthumously. I am ashamed to admit I have not completed this series yet, despite two attempts! My first try, the library was missing several of the volumes so I was forced to stop mid-way. On the second try, I read the first two and then got caught up in my reading challenge and didn’t have time to read anything additional. I’m hoping to be able to get back to it soon!
4) Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This is a book I read very recently, about a teenage girl named Kambili who has grown up in Nigeria. Kambili and her brother are sent to live with their aunt, who is much more liberal than their strict and religious father, where they begin to discover a different way of life. I went into this book knowing practically nothing about life in Africa in any country, and I thought it was a very interesting look at how religious and political influences affected people’s lives. I was especially interested in the contrast between those who had converted to Christianity, and how negatively they viewed the African traditions still practiced by many. I thought it was a very interesting look at the impact of the West on another country.
5) The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
This was one of the only books that I was required to read in high school that I actually enjoyed. It follows the life of Amir, the son of a wealthy family in Afghanistan whose best friend is the Hassan, the son of his family’s servant. This book was a very compelling story of the two boys and how their class differences affected the course of their lives. Like the other books on this list, I enjoyed it because it introduced the culture in a very human context that really brought it to life. This has always stood out as one of the most powerful books that I read in school, and I’m glad the teacher chose it other commonly used classics. It’s probably been about 10 years since I read it, although I recently read the graphic novel version to refresh myself on the story (and I would recommend that version as well. It did an excellent job of capturing the story in a limited-text format).