Books We Love: Tales From Around The World
LINDA HOLMES, HOST:
Books can take you anywhere - across oceans, across borders, to places you may have never seen. And those books are some of the ones that we treasure most. I'm Linda Holmes. And today we're recommending great books that take you around the world on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
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HOLMES: Joining me today is Leah Donnella. She's the supervising editor at NPR's Code Switch. Hey, Leah.
LEAH DONNELLA, BYLINE: Hey, Linda.
HOLMES: Welcome back to the show. We're always delighted to have you. Books We Love, as many of our listeners hopefully know, is NPR's sortable list of book recommendations from real people inside and outside NPR. And today, we've arrived, so to speak, at stories about places around the world. Leah, what is the first recommendation that you brought?
DONNELLA: My first recommendation is a book called "Chilean Poet: A Novel," and it's by Alejandro Zambra.
HOLMES: All right. Tell me a little bit about "Chilean Poet."
DONNELLA: OK. So the story follows this guy. He starts out as a teenager, a young guy named Gonzalo. And it kind of travels with him throughout his life. It takes place in Santiago. And Gonzalo is kind of, as many of us are, trying to figure out who he is, what he wants to do with his life. And as a young man, he kind of reconnects a romance with his high school girlfriend and winds up being the stepfather to her young child.
And so as he's kind of floating through his 20s, figuring out what that's going to mean and what he wants to do, he's also figuring out what it means to be - I mean, the way he kind of describes it as sort of a dad, but not really, in this role that doesn't have a huge amount of good representations in pop culture and media. So he's figuring that out. And the book is really funny. It's really sweet and kind of an offbeat family story.
HOLMES: Yeah. How did you find this book?
DONNELLA: I think it honestly was just in a pile of books that got sent to NPR. And I had been interested because I don't think - I can't remember recently having read a book by a Chilean author before. So I just thought, let me see what this is like. And then within the first few pages, I knew it was going to be a good one.
HOLMES: Absolutely. Absolutely. All right. So that is "Chilean Poet: A Novel" by Alejandro Zambra. All right. Tell me about your second pick.
DONNELLA: OK. This one is called "America Made Me A Black Man: A Memoir." It's by Boyah J. Farah, who is an author from Somalia. So this is a memoir about Boyah's journey basically from Somalia to the United States and what happened when he got to a suburb of Boston. And it's interesting because before he came to the U.S., he had seen tons of movies and TV shows about what the U.S. was going to be like and heard kind of this, like, myth of the U.S. So he really thought that it was going to be this kind of paradise-type place. Not quite like the streets are paved with gold, but very much he thought it would be almost heaven. That's the way it was described to him growing up.
And so when he got to the U.S., he at first was really kind of absorbed in that fantasy and kind of holding on to that perception. But he also was experiencing these microaggressions and different acts of outright racism and anti-Blackness. And so that kind of began to chip away at his idea of what the U.S. was. And he was in a very, very white suburb where there weren't a lot of other people who looked like him. The book is kind of about his process of understanding what it would mean to be Black in this place that he thought was going to be paradise and was a paradise for other people. And then also eventually his finding community in other Black people and realizing that that was one of the things that was going to help get him through this trauma of all the racism that he was experiencing.
HOLMES: I'm so very glad that we included this book in this episode because, you know, around the world includes, what does the place that you live look like through the eyes of somebody who wasn't born here?
DONNELLA: Oh, totally. I mean, it reads a bit like a travel memoir, which in a way is for him. You do start seeing things in a totally different way, the way you would kind of do research if you were going on a trip to a different country.
HOLMES: Mmm hmm. All right. So that is called "America Made Me A Black Man: A Memoir" by Boyah Farah. All right, Leah, what is your third pick?
DONNELLA: So the third pick is called "Mother Of Strangers." This one is also a novel. And it takes place in the city of Jaffa, which is now one of the oldest parts of Tel Aviv. It follows the main character, who is a 15-year-old named Subhi, and follows kind of his story of becoming infatuated with and falling in love with a girl who is in a couple neighborhoods over. But then it's also kind of set alongside the process of this city kind of getting totally changed and many parts of it destroyed in the process of all of the political and social changes that are happening when it takes place.
HOLMES: Yeah. What grabbed you about this one the most?
DONNELLA: Yeah. I mean, I think one of the things that was really interesting was that the city of Jaffa was written almost like a character in the book. And so every scene, every place was described really in intricate detail. And the author does a really nice job, I think, of showing you why it matters where you are in the city.
So at one point early on in the book, this main character - who is usually at sea level for his work and where he lives - he goes to this place that's pretty high up in altitude for a job that he's doing, and he's able to see the city from a different vantage point. And he just has this kind of realization where he's like, oh, your life would be so different if you were looking at it from this different place physically. And I was reading later that the author also has a background as an architect. So I think you can really see that come out in the story, too, that the way she's thinking about how things are constructed physically is detailed really beautifully in the book.
HOLMES: All right. Again, so that's "Mother Of Strangers" by Suad Amiry. And if you want to discover even more books NPR loves, visit npr.org/bestbooks. That brings us to the end of this episode. Thank you for being here, Leah.
DONNELLA: Thank you so much for having me.
HOLMES: And of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. This episode was produced by Rommel Wood and Mike Katzif and edited by Jessica Reedy. The Books We Love team is Beth Novey, Natalie Escobar, Maureen Pao, and Meghan Collins Sullivan. Hello Come In provides our theme music. I'm Linda Holmes, and we'll see you all tomorrow.
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