Holiday reading: Irish diplomats on what books to read where
From Bulgaria to Zambia and from China to Palestine, the books you should be reading
If you’re heading off the beaten track, you might welcome book recommendations from local experts
If you’re travelling abroad in search of sun and sangria, getting under the skin of the country you’re visiting by reading up on it is probably not top of your to do list. But if you’re heading off the beaten track, you might welcome the book recommendations of someone with a bit of local knowledge.
With that in mind, we asked the Department of Foreign Affairs to canvass our extensive network of overseas-based diplomats for their book recommendations, both fiction and nonfiction, which they believe shine a useful light on the country where they are based.
Fiction: Eastern Mediterranean by Ivy Meleagrou (written before the attempted coup by Greek-backed forces and invasion by Turkey in 1974, but only recently translated and published by Moufflon, it conveys a very atmospheric Nicosia, all the more meaningful to us with the benefit of hindsight.
Non-fiction: Reflections on the Past and the Future by (former President) George Vassiliou, in conversation with Niyazi Kisilyürik. - Nicholas Twist, Ambassador, Nicosia
Fiction – Mornings in Jenin, by Susan Abulhawa: This novel traces the paths of the members of the Abulheja family, swept from their homes by the 1948 “Nakba” or catastrophe, when 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled during the 1948 Palestine War. Their tales of displacement, longing and deprivation of dignity familiar to most Palestinians, are woven skilfully together by Abulhawa.
Non-fiction – Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape by Raja Shehadeh: Prominent Palestinian lawyer and human rights activist Raja Shehadeh tells the tale of the changing face of the West Bank after decades of settlement construction and occupation through this evocative memoir, covering six countryside walks taken by the author between 1978 and 2006 in his native land. – Declan Johnston, Ramallah
Fiction – Of Kids & Parents by Emil Hakl: this tells the story of a father and son on a pub crawl through Prague, discussing their personal lives against the background of the city’s complex history during the 20th century. The dialogue is a mix of James Joyce and Bohumil Hrabal.
Non-fiction: Havel: A Life by Michael Žantovský: Václav Havel was a Czech writer and philosopher who became a leading dissident after the Prague Spring of 1968. This authorised biography by Michael Žantovský, Havel’s spokesman, details all aspects of a man with a universal message who is honoured by a bust in Leinster House. – Assumpta Griffin, Prague
Fiction – Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chan: 2015 markeds 20 years since the death of Eileen Chang, arguably China’s most influential female writer. Born in Shanghai in 1920, Chang moved to Hong Kong to study before returning here just before Japanese troops invaded in 1937. The two cities of Chang’s youth form the backdrop to Love in a Fallen City. Set in the 1940s, the plot follows Bai Liusu, an introverted divorcee who has recently broken free of an unhappy marriage but is largely shunned by her judgemental family for doing so. When a charming Malaysian businessman passes through town, Bai starts to feel there might be a way out.
The book echoes Chang’s own tragic personal life - she married twice, divorcing her first husband, a Japanese collaborator and philanderer, in 1947 - and the author’s observations perfectly capture the tensions and excesses of colonial Hong Kong and pre-1949 Shanghai. (From Time Out Beijing)
Non-fiction – Factory Girls: Voices From the Heart of Modern China by Leslie T Chang: An eye-opening and previously untold story, Factory Girls is the first look into the everyday lives of the migrant factory population in China. China has 130 million migrant workers, the largest migration in human history. In Factory Girls, Leslie T Chang, a former correspondent for the Wall Street Journal in Beijing, tells the story of these workers primarily through the lives of two young women, whom she follows over the course of three years as they attempt to rise from the assembly lines of Dongguan, an industrial city in China’s Pearl River Delta.
As she tracks their lives, Chang paints a never-before-seen picture of migrant life, a world where nearly everyone is under thirty; where you can lose your boyfriend and your friends with the loss of a mobile phone; where a few computer or English lessons can catapult you into a completely different social class. Chang takes us inside a sneaker factory so large that it has its own hospital, movie theater, and fire department; to posh karaoke bars that are fronts for prostitution; to makeshift English classes where students shave their heads in monklike devotion and sit day after day in front of machines watching English words flash by; and back to a farming village for the Chinese New Year, revealing the poverty and idleness of rural life that drive young girls to leave home in the first place. Throughout this riveting portrait, Chang also interweaves the story of her own family’s migrations, within China and to the West, providing historical and personal frames of reference for her investigation.
A book of global significance that provides new insight into China, Factory Girls demonstrates how the mass movement from rural villages to cities is remaking individual lives and transforming Chinese society, much as immigration to America’s shores remade our own country a century ago. (From Goodreads). – Aoife Fleming, head of culture, people-to-people and consular relations, Beijing
Fiction – The Reactive by Masande Ntshanga: this is the debut novel by a new young South African writer. Rendered in lyrical, bright prose and set in a not-so-new South Africa, The Reactive is a poignant, life-affirming story about secrets, memory, chemical abuse and family, and the redemption that comes from facing what haunts us most. Another possibility for the Fiction category is The Women Next Door by Yewande Omotoso.
Non-fiction – Born a Crime by Trevor Noah: Noah’s autobiography Born a Crime, which has just been published this year, gives an discerning and funny insight into the life in South Africa. It’s an entertaining and easy read but yet still gives the reader a deeper understanding of complexity of life in South Africa. – Aoife Lyons, second secretary
Fiction – Dumb Luck by Vu Trong Phung: This is commonly referred to as the best example of Vietnamese fiction available in English, and was written by one of the best-known Vietnamese authors. Even though it was written in the 1930s, it still feels fresh in today’s Vietnam.
Non-fiction: Wandering through Vietnamese Culture (2004), by Huu Ngoc. – Réachbha FitzGerald, deputy head of development, Irish Aid
Fiction – New Writing from Slovakia, edited and translated by Magdalena Mullek and Julia Sherwood: For the audience you have in mind, I think the best bet in the fiction line would be the books translated by Julia Sherwood. It’s hard to recommend one particular book. For people who might like short stories and extracts from a variety of writers, there’s a book just out: Into the Spotlight. New Writing from Slovakia, edited and translated by Magdalena Mullek and Julia Sherwood and published by Parthian Books, a Welsh publisher. There are 16 writers here, nearly all of them youngish-to-middle-aged.
There’s a short, funny, feminist novel about coming of age in Slovakia just after the change of system in 1989: The Equestrienne by Ursula Kovalyk again translated by Julia and Peter Sherwood and published by Parthian.
Then there’s a very long historical novel about Slovakia in the 20th century which has sold well in English: The House of the Deaf Man by Peter Krištúfek, translated by Julia and Peter Sherwood.
John Minahine has translated one of the Slovak prose classics, the most accessible of them, first published in 1940: Margita Figuli’s Three Chestnut Horses, Central European University Press Budapest, 2014. Be warned though, this is about a rural Slovak society which has disappeared!
Non-fiction – 55 Loveliest Places in Slovakia, by Jozef Leikert and Alexander Vojcek: This is a sort of better-class guide book, mixing in bits of history, art, monuments, information on the landscape etc. with photos – originally it was written in Slovak for Slovaks, but it’s been translated into some other languages and the English edition has been republished several times.
If people are looking for something like a concise, readable history of Slovakia in English, one possibility is A History of Slovakia: The Struggle for Survival by Stanislav J. Kirschbaum (St. Martin’s Press (New York) 2016). This can be got as an e-book. It’s possible to browse some of it online at Google Books. – Anne-Marie Callan, Ambassador, who asked for suggestions from John Minahine, an Irishman who translates novels, poetry and texts on art or music in Slovakia
Fiction – the works Michel Déon: I would recommend that Irish visitors to France try anything by Michel Déon, a great friend of Ireland and a literary bridge between our countries, who died late last year. He lived quietly in Ireland despite being revered in France. Horseman, Pass By! has recently been translated by Clíona Ní Ríordáin, and The Foundling Boy is an earlier work, set in Normandy. He joins a powerful French literary canon. The classics are well-known but I spoke to Sinead Mac Aodha, director of the Centre Culturel Irlandais, and agreed that some modern novels Irish people might enjoy while visiting France would include Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky, and anything by Emmanuel Carrère and Maylis de Kerangal. – Peter O’Connor, Attaché culturel
Fiction – Smouldering Charcoal by Paul Tiyambe Zeleza: Having gained its independence in 1964, Malawi then went through 30 years of rule by the founder of the modern state, Hastings Kamuzu Banda. This resulted in a corrupt state in which exploitation and abuse grew. Smouldering Charcoal is an account of the ways in which two different families – one rich and one poor– seek to negotiate their way through the conflicts and challenges of an autocratic and often brutal regime. Ultimately the middle-class characters suffer similarly to the poorer ones. The novel is an important depiction of a story which is not widely known outside of Malawi itself – the story of a country seeking to enter a postcolonial phase only to find that sometimes the replacement of foreign rule by home-grown government leads to further problems.
Non-Fiction – The Boy who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer: a wonderful true story by and about a boy living in a poor and remote part of Malawi which, like the vast majority of the country, had no electricity or running water. He had read about windmills – not a common sight in Malawi – and succeeded, through throwing together a pile of scrap metal, and the debris from old and broken-down bicycles and tractors, and consulting some ancient science textbooks, to build something which would transform his life and those of his fellow villagers. It is heart-warming, and accurate in its depiction of village life in Malawi, and an important positive story to emerge from the country. – Michael Treacy, Lilongwe
Fiction – The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe: it may have been published 30 years ago, but above all it’s a brilliant story – a “great read”. Set in New York, it’s about hubris and nemesis. It’s a quintessentially American book, with excellent characterisations, and a moral core.
Non-fiction – Walden: or Life in the Woods by Thoreau: Walden: 2017 is the 200th anniversary of Thoreau’s birth and that’s being celebrated by an exhibition in New York. Walden: or Life in the Woods, his most famous book, is a testament to the value of nature and the interior mind. Like Wordsworth, Thoreau is a champion of simplicity, pointing a way to “the good life”. – Michael Sanfey is based at Ireland’s permanent mission to the UN in New York
Fiction – The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: a classic full of decadence and excess while also telling a very interesting tale about what lies behind the American dream. There’s also the Irish connection with F. Scott Fitzgerald of course!
Non-fiction: Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly: This follows the story of several African American women mathematicians who helped Nasa win the space race. A New York Times bestseller, the story was released as a film this year, Hidden Figures, which is very uplifting and shows a different angle on the American dream, and the feminist and civil rights movements of the time. – Kate Tyrell, consular & cultural affairs counsellor
Fiction – Yohannes Ishi by Nabse Bamato: Born in Ethiopia, but adopted by a British couple, Yohannes grows up far from his cultural roots. Following the death of his adoptive mother, he is persuaded to return to the beautiful, yet seemingly impossible nation, to take on a teaching job.
With no memories of the land of his birth and no knowledge of the language or culture, Yohannes finds himself a virtual stranger. He meets a whole raft of interesting characters, each with their own story to tell including Abeba, who helps him not only to learn about his country, but also to make discoveries about himself.
Yohannes Ishi is a light read, but, at the same time, it paints vivid pictures of contemporary Ethiopia and successfully explores issues of identity and belonging. It is full of memorable characters and evocative locations. While introducing you to, or reminding you of, Addis Ababa it will certainly raise a smile or two along the way
Non-fiction – My Life and Ethiopia’s Progress: The Autobiography of Emperor Haile Sellassie I Volume One: 1892-1937: The first Autobiography of Emperor Haile Sellassie is detailed with information on the little giant of a man who many peoples from all of life consider to be the returned Christ, the Messiah, or Defender of the Faith. Indeed, a remarkable and outstanding world leader. Got to read it. First time ever in paperback. – Paul Evans, Second Secretary, Addis Ababa
Fiction - Born on a Tuesday, by Elnathan John: Elnathan John tells a powerful coming of age story amidst the violence, religious extremism and radicalisation of Nigeria’s troubled north. In a very human way, through the eyes of Dantata, John’s first novel explores some of the political and social issues underlying the lack of development in the north of Nigeria, the conditions which gave rise to radicalisation and to terrorist groups such as Boko Haram.
Non-fiction - Dear Ijeawele or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie: Chimimanda is best known for her blockbuster novels such as Half of a Yellow Sun, Americanah or Purple Hibiscus. After her powerful Ted Talk We Should All Be Feminists went viral and was turned into a short book, Dear Ijeawele is the second essay she has published on gender equality. Chimimanda has a gift for marrying the personal with the political. In this letter to her friend on raising her child as a feminist, she speaks to mothers and to daughters but her message, grounded in everyday realities, resonates strongly in Nigeria and beyond. - Eoghan McSwiney, Deputy Head of Mission, Abuja
Fiction: Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys: Septeys is a Lithuanian-American author (her father was a refugee from Lithuania, and she was born in America). The book tells the story of Soviet deportations of Lithuanians to Siberia.
Nonfiction: Vilnius, City of Strangers, by Laimonas Briedis: The book is a history of the city of Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, told through the writings of various visitors and foreign residents. It is a bit academic in places, but generally is a very good read and an introduction to the city’s patchwork history. – David Noonan, Ambassador, Vilnius
Non-fiction – Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller: This is one of my top ten favourite books of all time. I read it just before being posted to work at the Embassy of Ireland in Lusaka, Zambia, and since I’ve been working and living in the country for nearly a year, I recently bought it to read it again. An extremely compelling memoir of her childhood as a white child raised on farms in former colonial Rhodesia, Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia) in the 1970s and 1980s along with her sister Vanessa. It is not a gilded, expat life: her parents lose their farm in a forced land distribution, after which they are itinerant farm managers, who move where the work is, often to disease-ridden and war-torn areas. Fuller describes her parents racism and the war time relationships between blacks and whites through a child’s watchful eyes. While fighting in Rhodesia, her parents both try to keep one country in Africa white-run. Most poignant of all are her memories and stories about her mother getting drunk at dinner and staying up all night; an honest portrayal of her mental breakdown and diagnosis of manic-depression and the effect her alcoholism had on her childhood.
Her look back at her early life in an English family at the violent tail end of colonialism is mostly sad but sometimes hilarious. In essence it is an honest but brutal portrayal of an unorthodox upbringing in a harsh and tumultuous time. – Fiona Quinn, head of development, Zambia, Irish Aid, Lusaka
Fiction – Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama: a thriller and winner of the Best Japanese Crime Fiction of the Year Award
Non-fiction: Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival by David Pilling: Financial Times Asia editor David Pilling presents a fresh vision of Japan. – Aisling Braiden, press & cultural attaché, Tokyo
Fiction – The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov: written by Bulgaria’s best-known writer, it was long listed for the International Dublin Prize 2017. Also worth investigating is East of the West: A Country in Stories by Miroslav Penkov. The title story won the BBC international short story prize in 2012.
Non-fiction – A Journey on the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova: a highly topical account of the region of Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. – Michael Forbes, Ambassador, Sofia