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Merle

Merle

My World Books Challenge FAQ, and the 100 Countries I've Read So Far

Many of you know that I am working on a challenge to read a book set in every country in the world. I am finally halfway through! This post answers some frequently asked questions about my challenge, and lists the books I've read so far, with their respective countries.

 

 

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS 

Q: What books count?

A: Any work of narrative fiction or nonfiction, set in the country in question, in which the setting is integral to the book. This means that the book must have a “sense of place”; it doesn’t count if the country is simply a generic backdrop to a thriller, for instance. With few exceptions, more than half of the story must take place in the country in question, and the protagonists should be local. There is no minimum page count for the books, as long as they are individually bound – a single short story does not count. Most of the books are contemporary novels, but I also include historical fiction, classics, memoirs, journalistic nonfiction, short story collections, speculative fiction – anything that tells a story. But I don’t read poetry, plays, or self-published works.

Q: What countries count?

To complete the challenge, I will read books from all 193 U.N. member states, plus Taiwan and Vatican City. I also use territories as freebies: when I read a book from a place that is politically, geographically and/or culturally distinct from the country it officially belongs to, I’ll add it to my list. Currently included are books set in Chechnya, Greenland, Palestine, Puerto Rico, and Tibet, bringing the total number of books to complete the challenge to 200.

Q: Do the authors have to be from the countries?

No, but I prefer it.

People do this challenge in different ways. Some read a book by an author from every country, regardless of setting; others read a book set in every country, regardless of the author’s origin; a third group requires the authors to be from the countries they write about.

The first option results in reading diverse authors, but without necessarily learning about their countries of origin; I’ve seen folks count Heart of Darkness for Poland because Conrad was born there, despite the fact that the novella is written in English about Englishmen in the Belgian Congo. My primary goal in the challenge is to visit every country in the world through reading, so a solely author-based challenge wouldn’t work.

I decided to base my challenge only on setting for several reasons. First, my second goal is to find books that I enjoy, so I prefer to give myself a broad range of book options. Second, defining who is “from” a country is complicated and often arbitrary. Is an author “from” a country if she was born there, but left at the age of 5 and never returned? What if her parents emigrated before her birth, but she grew up in an immigrant community abroad that retained their cultural traditions? What if an author has no family connections to the country, but he’s lived there for 20 years? I would rather spend my time reading than parsing authors’ biographies. And third, there is value to books written by outsiders; we live in a globalized world, and all perspectives are part of the mix.

All that said, during this challenge I’ve become increasingly sensitive to the importance of reading diverse authors and listening to local voices, particularly from formerly colonized countries. And people tend to write better books when they know their subject matter well. So I do prefer local authors; my books for the world’s most populous countries are all written by locals, as are the majority of the books I’ve read from each region.

Q: Do you have a time limit for the challenge?

Not really. I began in 2011 and like the idea of finishing by 2020. I have to balance my reading to keep it fun – if I read all WBC books all the time, I’d be sick of it within six books. But I’ve included books I read before 2011, and expect I’ll keep tinkering with the list even after finishing. I often read new books from countries I’ve already read and switch them out – for local authors, a stronger sense of place or just better books.

Q: Where do you find these books?

Everywhere. I’m fortunate to have access to both a fantastic local library and a huge university library, and find some books simply by browsing. Others come from recommendations, from free books offered to me for review, from bloggers doing similar challenges or interested in a specific area of the world. Many books I find on Goodreads: through the recommendations engine, through groups and other users’ shelves, and through genre shelving. You can find books people have associated with any country by filling its name in here: www.goodreads.com/genres/countryname.

Q: Is there a point to this, other than saying you’ve read a book set in every country?

That’s how it started – I love reading about other places and hoped to learn more about the world. But the challenge has broadened my horizons in ways I never expected. Like most Americans, I was initially reluctant to read books in translation, which seemed too “foreign” to make enjoyable reading, but I’ve become more open to different kinds of storytelling. I’ve discovered African fiction, which I had no prior experience with beyond reading Things Fall Apart in school – and I was missing out, because many excellent books come from that continent. I also credit the challenge with finally convincing me that nonfiction can make engaging reading; I reluctantly started Demick’s Nothing to Envy as my North Korea book, and it blew my mind.

Q: But it seems like you dislike many of the books.

I’m a harsh grader. It’s my nature, and I don’t go easier on WBC books than others. That’s quite important to me: choosing to read diverse authors is great, but if we believe their work can be just as good as books in the white male canon, then we can’t grade on a curve. We should accord all authors the respect of taking their work seriously, which includes honestly evaluating its flaws. Pretending to like something subpar in hopes of looking politically correct doesn’t help anyone in the end – not the other diverse authors whose work actually is great, and certainly not you, who might read some of these books based on my recommendation. I do recommend everything rated 3.5 stars or above, and some of the lower-rated books are fine too, depending on your preferences.

 


THE LIST 

Countries I've read are listed in bold, alongside the books I chose and my ratings and reviews. Countries I have not yet read are listed below in plain type. If I've located a book I plan to read for the country, it's linked with an asterisk beside the country name. All links are to Goodreads, because it's easier.

North America and the Caribbean 
12 out of 24 countries = 50%

CanadaAnne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery - review (unrated)
United StatesAll the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren - review ★★★★★
MexicoRecollections of Things to Come by Elena Garro - review (unrated)

BelizeBeka Lamb by Zee Edgell - review ★★½
NicaraguaThe Country Under My Skin by Gioconda Belli - review (unrated)
Costa Rica
El Salvador
Guatemala
Honduras
Panama

Antigua & BarbudaAnnie John by Jamaica Kincaid - review ★★★½
CubaThe Island of Eternal Love by Daina Chaviano - review ★★
DominicaWide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys - review (unrated)
Dominican RepublicIn the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez - review (unrated)
HaitiThe Boiling Season by Christopher Hebert - review ★★★★
JamaicaThe Long Song by Andrea Levy - review ★★½
Puerto RicoThe House on the Lagoon by Rosario Ferré - review (unrated)
Bahamas
Barbados *
Grenada
St. Kitts & Nevis
St. Lucia
St. Vincent & the Grenadines
Trinidad & Tobago *


South America
6 out of 12 countries = 50%

ArgentinaThe Peron Novel by Tomás Eloy Martínez - review (unrated)
BrazilThe Seamstress by Frances de Pontes Peebles - review ★★★★★
ChileThe House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende - review ★★★★★
ColombiaOne Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez - review (unrated)
UruguayThe Invisible Mountain by Carolina De Robertis - review ★★★½
VenezuelaEva Luna by Isabel Allende - review (unrated)
Bolivia
Ecuador *
Guyana *
Paraguay *
Peru *
Suriname


Africa
27 out of 54 countries = 50%

AlgeriaThe Lovers of Algeria by Anouar Benmalek - review ★★★
EgyptMidaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz - review ★★★
LibyaThe Bleeding of the Stone by Ibrahim al-Koni - review (unrated)
MoroccoThe Harem Within by Fatema Mernissi - review (unrated)
Tunisia

GhanaThe Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah - review ★★★★
GuineaThe Dark Child by Camara Laye - review ★★★½
Ivory CoastAya by Marguerite Abouet - review ★★★½
LiberiaAllah Is Not Obliged by Ahmadou Kourouma - review ★★½
NigeriaHalf of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - review ★★★★★
SenegalGod's Bits of Wood by Ousmane Sembène - review ★★★★
Sierra LeoneThe Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna - review ★★★½
Benin
Burkina Faso
Cape Verde *
Gambia *
Guinea-Bissau
Mali *
Mauritania
Niger
Togo

CameroonHouseboy by Ferdinand Oyono - review ★★½
Democratic Republic of the CongoThe Ponds of Kalambayi by Mike Tidwell - review ★★★★
Sao Tome & PrincipeEquator by Miguel Sousa Tavares - review ★★
Central African Republic
Chad
Republic of the Congo
Equatorial Guinea
Gabon

EthiopiaBeneath the Lion's Gaze by Maaza Mengiste - review ★★★
KenyaA Grain of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiong'o - review (unrated)
RwandaOur Lady of the Nile by Scholastique Mukasonga - review (unrated)
SomaliaThe Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed - review ★★★
SudanWho Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor - review ★★½
TanzaniaParadise by Abdulrazak Gurnah review ★★
UgandaThirty Girls by Susan Minot - review ★½
Burundi
Djibouti
Eritrea
South Sudan

BotswanaMaru by Bessie Head - review ★★★
MauritiusThe Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah - review ★★
MozambiqueNeighbours by Lília Momplé - review ★★★½
South AfricaFiela's Child by Dalene Matthee - review ★★★★
ZambiaPatchwork by Ellen Banda-Aaku - review ★★★★
ZimbabweZenzele by J. Nozipo Maraire - review ★★★★
Angola
Comoros
Lesotho *
Madagascar
Malawi
Namibia
Seychelles
Swaziland


Europe 
21 out of 49 countries = 43%

FranceLa Bête humaine by Émile Zola - review (unrated)
GermanyThe Lost Honor of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Böll - review ★★★★
GreenlandThe Greenlanders by Jane Smiley - review ★★★★½
IcelandBurial Rites by Hannah Kent - review ★★½
IrelandThe Country Girls by Edna O'Brien - review ★★★½
ItalyMy Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante - review ★★★★
NetherlandsConfessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire - review ★★★½
SpainFor Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway - review ★★★★
SwitzerlandHeidi by Johanna Spyri - review (unrated)
United KingdomSouth Riding by Winifred Holtby - review ★★★★½
Andorra
Austria *
Belgium
Denmark *
Finland
Liechtenstein
Luxembourg
Malta
Monaco
Norway *
Portugal *
San Marino
Sweden
Vatican City

AlbaniaThe Loser by Fatos Kongoli - review ★★★
AzerbaijanAli and Nino by Kurban Said - review ★★★½
ChechnyaA Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra - review ★★½
CroatiaGirl at War: A Novel by Sara Nović - review ★★
GreeceThe Sailor's Wife by Helen Benedict - review ★★★
HungaryCsardas by Diane Pearson - review ★★★★
MontenegroThe Dawning by Milka Bajic-Poderegin - review ★★★
RomaniaWildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier - review ★★★½
RussiaWar and Peace by Leo Tolstoy - review ★★★★★
SerbiaThe Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht - review ★★★★
UkraineMoonlight in Odessa by Janet Skeslien Charles - review ★★★★
Armenia
Belarus
Bosnia & Herzegovina *
Bulgaria
Czech Republic
Estonia *
Georgia *
Latvia
Lithuania
Macedonia
Moldova
Poland *
Slovakia
Slovenia


Middle East 
10 out of 16 countries = 63%

IranThe Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani - review ★★★★
IraqBetween Two Worlds by Zainab Salbi - review ★★★★
IsraelMy Promised Land by Ari Shavit - review ★★
KuwaitSmall Kingdoms by Anastasia Hobbet - review ★★
LebanonPorts Of Call by Amin Maalouf - review ★★★★
QatarThe Girl Who Fell to Earth by Sophia Al-Maria - review ★★
PalestineMornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa - review ★★
Saudi ArabiaCities of Salt by Abdul Rahman Munif - review ★★★½
TurkeyBirds Without Wings by Louis de Bernières - review ★★★★
YemenThe Hostage by Zayd Mutee Dammaj - review ★★
Bahrain
Cyprus
Jordan
Oman
Syria
United Arab Emirates


Asia 
22 out of 31 countries = 71%

AfghanistanA Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini - review ★★★★★
KazakhstanThe Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years by Chingiz Aitmatov - review ★★★★½
KyrgyzstanJamilia by Chingiz Aitmatov - review ★★★★
TajikistanHurramabad by Andrei Volos - review ★★★½
Turkmenistan
Uzbekistan

BangladeshA Golden Age by Tahmima Anam - review ★★★★
IndiaA Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth - review ★★★★½
NepalBuddha's Orphans by Samrat Upadhyay - review ★
Sri LankaIsland of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera - review ★★★½
PakistanIn Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin - review ★★
Bhutan *
Maldives

ChinaMiss Chopsticks by Xinran - review ★★★★
JapanOut by Natsuo Kirino - review ★★★½
MongoliaAll This Belongs to Me: A Novel by Petra Hůlová - review ★★
North KoreaNothing to Envy by Barbara Demick - review ★★★★★
South KoreaFox Girl by Nora Okja Keller - review ★★★
TibetAcross Many Mountains by Yangzom Brauen - review ★★½
Taiwan *

IndonesiaThis Earth of Mankind by Pramoedya Ananta Toer - review ★★★
MalaysiaThe Harmony Silk Factory by Tash Aw - review ★★★
MyanmarThe Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh - review ★★★★
PhilippinesThe Last Time I Saw Mother by Arlene J. Chai - review ★★
SingaporeFollowing the Wrong God Home by Catherine Lim - review ★★★
ThailandFour Reigns by Kukrit Pramoj - review ★★★★
VietnamThe Tapestries by Kien Nguyen - review ★
Brunei
Cambodia *
East Timor *
Laos


Australia and the Pacific 
2 out of 14 countries = 14%

AustraliaThe Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough - review ★★★½
New ZealandThe Colour by Rose Tremain - review ★★★½
Fiji
Kiribati
Marshall Islands
Micronesia
Nauru
Palau
Papua New Guinea *
Samoa
Solomon Islands
Tonga
Tuvalu
Vanuatu

 


Have book suggestions (always appreciated!)? Want to discourage me from reading one of the books I have planned? Feel the need to debate some of my choices? Let me know in the comments!