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.
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%
Canada: Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery - review (unrated)
United States: All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren - review ★★★★★
Mexico: Recollections of Things to Come by Elena Garro - review (unrated)
Belize: Beka Lamb by Zee Edgell - review ★★½
Nicaragua: The Country Under My Skin by Gioconda Belli - review (unrated)
Antigua & Barbuda: Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid - review ★★★½
Cuba: The Island of Eternal Love by Daina Chaviano - review ★★
Dominica: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys - review (unrated)
Dominican Republic: In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez - review (unrated)
Haiti: The Boiling Season by Christopher Hebert - review ★★★★
Jamaica: The Long Song by Andrea Levy - review ★★½
Puerto Rico: The House on the Lagoon by Rosario Ferré - review (unrated)
St. Kitts & Nevis
St. Vincent & the Grenadines
Trinidad & Tobago *
6 out of 12 countries = 50%
Argentina: The Peron Novel by Tomás Eloy Martínez - review (unrated)
Brazil: The Seamstress by Frances de Pontes Peebles - review ★★★★★
Chile: The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende - review ★★★★★
Colombia: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez - review (unrated)
Uruguay: The Invisible Mountain by Carolina De Robertis - review ★★★½
Venezuela: Eva Luna by Isabel Allende - review (unrated)
27 out of 54 countries = 50%
Algeria: The Lovers of Algeria by Anouar Benmalek - review ★★★
Egypt: Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz - review ★★★
Libya: The Bleeding of the Stone by Ibrahim al-Koni - review (unrated)
Morocco: The Harem Within by Fatema Mernissi - review (unrated)
Ghana: The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah - review ★★★★
Guinea: The Dark Child by Camara Laye - review ★★★½
Ivory Coast: Aya by Marguerite Abouet - review ★★★½
Liberia: Allah Is Not Obliged by Ahmadou Kourouma - review ★★½
Nigeria: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - review ★★★★★
Senegal: God's Bits of Wood by Ousmane Sembène - review ★★★★
Sierra Leone: The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna - review ★★★½
Cape Verde *
Cameroon: Houseboy by Ferdinand Oyono - review ★★½
Democratic Republic of the Congo: The Ponds of Kalambayi by Mike Tidwell - review ★★★★
Sao Tome & Principe: Equator by Miguel Sousa Tavares - review ★★
Central African Republic
Republic of the Congo
Ethiopia: Beneath the Lion's Gaze by Maaza Mengiste - review ★★★
Kenya: A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiong'o - review (unrated)
Rwanda: Our Lady of the Nile by Scholastique Mukasonga - review (unrated)
Somalia: The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed - review ★★★
Sudan: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor - review ★★½
Tanzania: Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah review ★★
Uganda: Thirty Girls by Susan Minot - review ★½
Botswana: Maru by Bessie Head - review ★★★
Mauritius: The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah - review ★★
Mozambique: Neighbours by Lília Momplé - review ★★★½
South Africa: Fiela's Child by Dalene Matthee - review ★★★★
Zambia: Patchwork by Ellen Banda-Aaku - review ★★★★
Zimbabwe: Zenzele by J. Nozipo Maraire - review ★★★★
21 out of 49 countries = 43%
France: La Bête humaine by Émile Zola - review (unrated)
Germany: The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Böll - review ★★★★
Greenland: The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley - review ★★★★½
Iceland: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent - review ★★½
Ireland: The Country Girls by Edna O'Brien - review ★★★½
Italy: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante - review ★★★★
Netherlands: Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire - review ★★★½
Spain: For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway - review ★★★★
Switzerland: Heidi by Johanna Spyri - review (unrated)
United Kingdom: South Riding by Winifred Holtby - review ★★★★½
Albania: The Loser by Fatos Kongoli - review ★★★
Azerbaijan: Ali and Nino by Kurban Said - review ★★★½
Chechnya: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra - review ★★½
Croatia: Girl at War: A Novel by Sara Nović - review ★★
Greece: The Sailor's Wife by Helen Benedict - review ★★★
Hungary: Csardas by Diane Pearson - review ★★★★
Montenegro: The Dawning by Milka Bajic-Poderegin - review ★★★
Romania: Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier - review ★★★½
Russia: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy - review ★★★★★
Serbia: The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht - review ★★★★
Ukraine: Moonlight in Odessa by Janet Skeslien Charles - review ★★★★
Bosnia & Herzegovina *
10 out of 16 countries = 63%
Iran: The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani - review ★★★★
Iraq: Between Two Worlds by Zainab Salbi - review ★★★★
Israel: My Promised Land by Ari Shavit - review ★★
Kuwait: Small Kingdoms by Anastasia Hobbet - review ★★
Lebanon: Ports Of Call by Amin Maalouf - review ★★★★
Qatar: The Girl Who Fell to Earth by Sophia Al-Maria - review ★★
Palestine: Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa - review ★★
Saudi Arabia: Cities of Salt by Abdul Rahman Munif - review ★★★½
Turkey: Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernières - review ★★★★
Yemen: The Hostage by Zayd Mutee Dammaj - review ★★
United Arab Emirates
22 out of 31 countries = 71%
Afghanistan: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini - review ★★★★★
Kazakhstan: The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years by Chingiz Aitmatov - review ★★★★½
Kyrgyzstan: Jamilia by Chingiz Aitmatov - review ★★★★
Tajikistan: Hurramabad by Andrei Volos - review ★★★½
Bangladesh: A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam - review ★★★★
India: A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth - review ★★★★½
Nepal: Buddha's Orphans by Samrat Upadhyay - review ★
Sri Lanka: Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera - review ★★★½
Pakistan: In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin - review ★★
China: Miss Chopsticks by Xinran - review ★★★★
Japan: Out by Natsuo Kirino - review ★★★½
Mongolia: All This Belongs to Me: A Novel by Petra Hůlová - review ★★
North Korea: Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick - review ★★★★★
South Korea: Fox Girl by Nora Okja Keller - review ★★★
Tibet: Across Many Mountains by Yangzom Brauen - review ★★½
Indonesia: This Earth of Mankind by Pramoedya Ananta Toer - review ★★★
Malaysia: The Harmony Silk Factory by Tash Aw - review ★★★
Myanmar: The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh - review ★★★★
Philippines: The Last Time I Saw Mother by Arlene J. Chai - review ★★
Singapore: Following the Wrong God Home by Catherine Lim - review ★★★
Thailand: Four Reigns by Kukrit Pramoj - review ★★★★
Vietnam: The Tapestries by Kien Nguyen - review ★
East Timor *
Australia and the Pacific
2 out of 14 countries = 14%
Australia: The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough - review ★★★½
New Zealand: The Colour by Rose Tremain - review ★★★½
Papua New Guinea *
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!