1. What is your favourite book set in Europe? Who is your favourite European author?
A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, by Patrick Leigh Fermor. Fermor, a young Irishman with a prodigious memory and talent for languages, set off in 1933 on a walking tour of Mitteleuropa from the mouth of the Rhine to Constantinople. He traverses the broad and beautiful heart of Europe and gives life and richness to places I'd always pictured in Communist gray: Romania, Transylvania, Hungary, Slovakia, Yugoslavia. The third, posthumous volume, The Broken Road, is finally published, but we've not had time to read it yet.
Spain: The Cypresses Believe in God by Jose Maria Gironella is the first of a set of three novels dealing with the Spanish Civil War. The story follows a group of characters centering around the Alvear family, the husband from an anti-clerical family in Madrid, the wife a devout Catholic from a Basque family. As such, their network of friends and relatives spans the sectarian and geographic divisions which exploded into war. Gironella himself was a nationalist, but he does a good job of showing the pressures and feelings which drove members of both sides.
2. What is your favourite book set in North America? Who is your favourite North American author?
First, from our great neighbor to the North: The Salterton Trilogy, by Robertson Davies. Davies is a Canadian author, and of his work we best prefer the three books set in Salterton: Tempest Tost, about an amateur theatrical production of The Tempest; Leaven of Malice, a tempest in a university town teapot, touched off by a false marriage announcement in the local paper; and Mixture of Frailties, about the world education of a young opera singer from Salterton.
Davies is the master of dry humor, and though in some of his other books he can descend into a rather dark and grotesque view of humanity, in the Salterton Trilogy his touch is light and unerring. Here we must reproduce a rather long selection from Leaven of Malice, in which a young author is talking up his planned epic about Canada:
"Could I talk to you for a minute, about the novel? I'd appreciate your help, Mr. Ridley."
"This is rather a busy time."
But Rumball had already seated himself, and his shyness had fallen from him. His eyes gleamed.
"It's going to be a big thing. I know that. It's not conceit; I feel it just as if the book was somebody else's. It's something nobody has tried to do in Canada before. It's about the West--"
"I recall quite a few novels about the West."
"Yes, but they were all about man's conquest of the prairie. This is just the opposite. It's the prairie's conquest of man. See? A big concept. A huge panorama. I only hope I can handle it. You remember that film The Plough That Broke The Plain? I'm calling my book The Plain That Broke The Plough. I open with a tremendous description of the Prairie; vast, elemental, brooding, slumbrous; I reckon on at least fifteen thousand words of that. Then, Man comes. Not the Red Man; he understands the prairie; he croons to it. No, this is the White Man; he doesn't understand the prairie; he rips up its belly with a blade; he ravishes it. 'Take it easy,' says the Red Man. 'Ah, drop dead,' says the White Man. You see? There's your conflict. But the real conflict is between the White Man and the prairie. The struggle goes on for three generations, and at last the prairie breaks the White Man. Just throws him off.
..."But there's just one thing I'd like your advice about. Names. Names are so important in a book. Now the big force in my book is the prairie itself, I just call the Prairie. But my people who are struggling against it are two families; one is English, from the North, and I thought of calling them the Chimneyholes, only they pronounce it Chumnel. The other is Scandinavian and I want to call them the Ruokatavarakauppas. I'm worried that the vowel sounds in the two names may not be sufficiently differentiated. Because, you see, I want to get a big poetic sweep into the writing, and if the main words in the novel aren't right, the whole thing may bog down, do you see?"
End of Track is a memoir by James H. Kyner, who enlisted in the Union Army at the ripe underage of 15, immediately lost his leg at at Shiloh, and went on to be a contractor grading and building Western railroads. You don't get a whole lot more American than that. He published his story in 1937, and it's good reading.
Not representative of the country as a whole, but does draw characters from all over North America: the U.S., the Caribbean, even Canada: Absalom, Absalom! , by William Faulkner. Faulkner is heavy going, but this strangely compelling story lingers long after you've finally deciphered his sentence structure.
And speaking of the Caribbean: Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys, a native of Dominica. Rhys, disturbed by Charlotte Bronte's depictions of the Caribbean in Jane Eyre, set out to write a companion volume which told the story from the Creole perspective.
3. What is your favourite book set in South America? Who is your favourite South American author?
One Hundred Years of Solitude , by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This was, I think, one of the first of the wave of "magical realism" lit that's become so prevalent, and Marquez, a Colombian author, does it better than most because (as far as I know, anyway) he's not imitating someone else's style, but developing something new.
4. What is your favourite book set in Asia? Who is your favourite Asian author?
An Artist of the Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro tells the story of Masuji Ono, an aging painter living in post-WW2 Japan. Ono's school of painters had become deeply bought into the nationalism which led to the war, and he had participated in a committee of artists policing unpatriotic activities. Now everything which his generation and his movement stood for has been rejected, and Ono struggles with the meaning of his life and his responsibility, trying to sort out whether there is genuine nobility and accomplishment to be defended against the rejection of the younger generation. Ishiguro's family left Japan in 1960 when he was five, and he is a British novelists, not a Japanese one, but he uses the setting of his ancestral country to work through themes which are universal as well as specific. (Ishiguro is perhaps most famous for his novel Remains of the Day, which was made into an outstanding movie with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.)
The Master of Go, by Yasunari Kawabata is a Japanese novel originally published in 1954, relating a climactic game of Go, a Japanese strategy game, between an aging master and a fast rising rival. The game was real, played in 1938, and the book was recommended to me when I was learning Go. If you have any interest in the game, it's worth reading on that front, but the book also stands on its own both as a window into Japanese culture and as more universal look at a transition point from an old tradition-guided way of doing things to a modern, analytical one.
Captivity, by Mary Ann Harbert, subtitled "44 Months in Red China". In 1968 Harbert and a friend were planning to sail around the world. They strayed into Chinese waters and were "detained" -- not imprisoned -- until 1972. One can question certain details of Harbert's narrative and still be drawn in by her descriptions of trying to deal with the puppets of the Cultural Revolution and find out exactly what her crime is so she can go home. (No torture, for readers like me for whom that matters.)
Dusk, by F. Sionil Jose. Dusk was recommended to me by Enbrethiliel, my favorite Philippina blogger, who has been educating her Western readers on the literary heritage of the Philippines. The book is the first of a five-volume series set in the town of Rosales, and chronicles the hardships of the transition from the Spanish rule of the Philippines, and the American invasion.
5. What is your favourite book set in Australasia? Who is your favourite antipodean author?
We realized that we're pretty weak on literature from Australia and New Zealand, but one novel from an Australian author that I did recently read is The Daughters of Mars, by Thomas Keneally. It tells the story of two sisters, both of them nurses. As the book opens, they are dealing with their mother, who is in the last stages of cancer. Shortly after her death, World War One begins, and both sisters become military nurses, traveling to Egypt, as hospital ship off Gallipoli and finally France. The novel overall is very good, though a postmodern touch in how Keneally brought it to a conclusion frustrated me.
Ngaio Marsh was a mystery writer from New Zealand who was ranked with the "Queens of Crime": Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Agatha Christie. It's been years since I read her books, but I remember liking them quite a bit, especially as many of them involve the theater.
6. Have you ever read, or do you know of, any books written by authors in Antarctica/ the Arctic?
H.P. Lovecraft's giant blind albino penguins are about the only thing that come to mind... Oh, and Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr,, the novella that introduced the world to The Thing.
We haven't read Shackleton or Peary or Amundsen writing about their various polar expeditions, but there is good lit out there about the icy extremes of the earth.
7. Who are your favourite African authors and books set in Africa?
I really enjoyed The Lion Sleeps Tonight: And Other Stories of Africa, a book of essays by South African journalist Rian Malan.
Master Harold . . . And The Boys is a play by South African playwright Athol Fugard, about the complex relationship between a young man and the black employees in his father's tea shop.
We think of him as a French author, but Albert Camus was in fact from Algeria -- French Algeria -- and the African sun is the inciting factor in The Stranger.
Joseph Conrad was form Poland and emigrated to England, but his classic novel Heart of Darkness is perhaps his most famous work, telling the story of seaman Charles Marlow in a journey up river the Belgian Congo to find Mr. Kurtz, an agent of the ivory company who is reported to be one of the most effect ivory agents. As he does so, however, he finds himself going deeper and deeper into the results of European greed and cruelty. Belgian Congo was notorious in turn-of-the-century Europe as the site of the some of worst abuses of the colonial era.