15 books from around the world to celebrate World Book Day

Al Woodworth on April 16, 2020
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From Afghanistan to Zambia: 15 books from around the world to celebrate World Book Day

Books have always been my salvation—whether they offer relief from the day’s events, a laugh, insight into lives different than mine, information about the world, or the magical combination of all of these—they are what inspire me. I am grateful for books everyday, but on April 23, I am especially so. World Book Day is celebrated by more than 100 countries around the world, and it's a chance to honor the authors, illustrators, and books that have enriched our lives.

So, this World Book Day, when so many of us are confined to our homes, let's celebrate the books and stories that take us all over the world. From the freezing and lonesome expanse of Antarctica and the hot sun of Jamaica, to hotel rooms in Moscow and post-colonial Zambia, here's a list of 15 books that will transport you to distant countries and will remind you that literature has no bounds.


And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

Afghanistan

Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed begins simply enough, with a father recounting a folktale to his two young children. The tale is about a young boy who is taken by a div (a sort of ogre), and how that fate might not be as terrible as it first seems—a brilliant device that firmly sets the tone for the rest of this sweeping, heartbreaking, and ultimately uplifting novel. A day after he tells the tale of the div, the father gives away his own daughter to a wealthy man in Kabul. What follows is a series of stories within the story, told through multiple viewpoints, spanning more than half a century, and shifting across continents. The novel moves through war, separation, birth, death, deceit, and love, illustrating again and again how people’s actions, even the seemingly selfless ones, are shrouded in ambiguity. This is a masterwork by a master storyteller. —Chris Schluep


The Impossible First: From Fire to Ice--Crossing Antartica Alone by Colin O'Brady

Antarctica

There’s something about the grit, living on the edge of life and death, hubris and humility, defiance and exposure that I find absolutely riveting. And Colin O’Brady’s heroic Antarctic exploration is exactly that. After a crippling injury that should have sidelined him from even walking, Colin O’Brady climbed the seven highest mountains on Earth and then set his sights on the impossible. The Impossible First is his gripping memoir of racing across Antarctica—the first ever solo, unsupported, unaided crossing of the frozen continent (932 miles of it). It’s a thrilling, freezing ride, and it’s easy to be awed by his determination and the landscape of white that surrounds him. —Al Woodworth


Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

Australia

Set in a depressed suburb of Brisbane, Boy Swallows Universe is the unforgettable story of 12-year-old Eli (and his wise, mute older brother, August) gleaning what it means to be a good man from the parental figures in his life: septuagenarian Slim Halliday, Australia's most infamous prison escapee and the boys' babysitter; his drug-dealer-with-a-heart-of-gold stepdad, Lyle; his actual father, an anxiety-ridden alcoholic; and the mother he reveres. It's also the story of a young boy opposing a genuinely terrifying foe: local businessman Tytus Boz is rumored to reuse the body parts of murdered enemies in his artificial limb company, and he’s a heroin kingpin. Poignant, hilarious, and endlessly imaginative, this is a love letter to clear-eyed male tenderness set against a series of bloody amputations and bricks of Golden Triangle smack. —Katy Ball


A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

Chile and Spain

From the author of The House of the Spirits and numerous other bestselling novels, force of nature Isabel Allende’s latest is an epic and emotional adventure that follows two refugees who have fled the Spanish American War. Roser is a young widow who must weather the sorry deck life has dealt with a doctor who is the brother of her deceased husband. They enter into a marriage of convenience to survive and so begins a series of unfortunate events in their quest to find a place they can call home. An engrossing, and ultimately hopeful, read. —Erin Kodicek


Three Hours in Paris by Cara Black

France

Cara Black’s Three Hours in Paris is a highly entertaining historical thriller of espionage and political double-dealing set in the unique atmosphere of Paris during the Nazi occupation…Black’s thriller gives readers a delightful fictional answer to the mystery of Hitler’s real-life three-hour visit to Paris in June 1940 that ended abruptly for reasons still unknown. Three Hours in Paris is an exciting page-turner that will be particularly enjoyable for readers who appreciate a heroine who defies all odds and expectations. —Seira Wilson

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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

India

To read The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is to immerse yourself in years of India’s religious, political, and cultural changes and to feel it all through the narrative of an incredible cast of characters. What becomes apparent throughout their individual stories is that power and belief are malleable, that suffering does not end but merely changes hands, and what is revered can easily become reviled…Yes, there is a lot of violence and heartbreak in this novel, but Roy also suffuses it with humor, irony, and—more than anything—the ability of love and acceptance to heal the broken. —Seira Wilson


Apeirogon by Colum McCann

Israel and Palestine

In Apeirogon, McCann unfurls the story of two fathers, one Palestinian and one Israeli, who have both lost their daughters to the violence that surrounds them. Over the course of the day, these two men’s lives intertwine as they attempt to use their grief as a weapon for peace. Told in one thousand and one short vignettes, McCann flashes from the present to the past, sharing the lives of these men, the lives of their daughters, the experience of crossing police checkpoints and surviving jail, meditations on the migration pattern of birds, the making of bullets, and the history of the region. With these bursts, the novel presents a sweeping portrait of the complex conflict at the heart of the Holy Land. —Al Woodworth


Call Me by Your Name by Andre Aciman

Italy

This novel—and rightly so—has made headlines for its portrayal of a young boy’s physical and emotional obsession with a grad student that came to stay with his family one summer. Always beautifully written, the passages wax from hot and heavy meditations on love to heavenly descriptions of the Italian countryside and seaside. As much as Call Me by Your Name is a love letter to first relationships it’s also a declaration of love for Italy—the smells, the landscape, the food. —Al Woodworth

And once you’ve tasted the fruit of Italy and want more, read the juicy, drama-filled world of Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan series.


Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn

Jamaica

Here Comes the Sun is a brilliant, gut-punch of a debut novel. Set on the white sand beaches and in the resorts and shacks of Jamaica, Nicole Dennis-Benn's novel tells the story of four Jamaican women as they struggle to find their independence amidst the sprawling resorts that both provide and threaten their livelihood. I fell hard for these characters—for their defiance and vulnerability, for their grit and morally ambiguous choices—and for the island-life that Nicole Dennis-Benn has captured. You can almost feel the hot stick of the sun while reading, the sweat of work and the incongruities of wealth and power, sexuality and love. Here Comes the Sun is a bright story about the dark side of tourism, sex and relationships, of getting ahead…And you will tan from its rays. —Al Woodworth


1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Japan

Haruki Murakami is a surreal and dreamy writer—where strange (and often otherworldly) events give way to new relationships, new worlds, and new realities. 1Q84 is perhaps Murakami's most sprawling, ambitious, and certainly his longest novel yet. I could tell you that it unravels over the course of a year in Japan and there is a parallel universe, shoot-outs, love triangles, mysteries and homicidal intrigue. But what I’d rather say is that to read this book is to be enveloped in a strange and genius magic trick. —Al Woodworth


The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

Malaysia

Some readers will be intrigued by apprentice dressmaker Ji Lin and her strongminded pursuit to achieve more with her life than her old-fashioned family will condone. Others will be hooked on the premise of a young houseboy named Ren trying to find the severed finger of his former master, who might or might not also be a weretiger. Still others will gravitate toward the mythologies, food, traditions, and culture of 1930s colonial Malaysia under British rule. Once Ji Lin comes in possession of the mummified finger that Ren seeks, they are destined to collide, even as a deadly tiger roams the edges of town. Whatever your entry point to The Night Tiger, Yangsze Choo will win you over with her newest historical novel, and you'll find yourself embracing everything she hurls onto the page, including a number of curveballs that contain the perfect amount of surprise. —Adrian Liang


Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Nigeria

Purple Hibiscus, Nigerian-born writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's debut, begins like many novels set in regions considered exotic by the western reader: the politics, climate, social customs, and, above all, food of Nigeria (balls of fufu rolled between the fingers, okpa bought from roadside vendors) unfold like the purple hibiscus of the title, rare and fascinating. A story about siblings coming of age during a military coup in Nigeria and the religious intolerance and tyranny that threatens to break their family apart. Alicia Keys recently told the Amazon Book Review: “You find yourself falling in love with this family and really being taken on their journey, their heartbreak, and their secrets—it is a beautiful and amazing read.”


The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Norway

Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s beautifully written novel takes place in a remote Norwegian town in the 1600s. Almost the entire male population has been wiped out when a freak storm overtakes them while they’re fishing. The women must fend for themselves, and since wearing trousers is scandalous in this place and time, the fact that they are able to do so with relative ease means that witchcraft must be involved! A page-turner that is infuriating, baleful, but full of stubborn hope, you won’t cry mercy before finishing it. —Erin Kodicek


A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Russia

In A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles skillfully transports readers to The Metropol, the famed Moscow hotel where movie stars and Russian royalty hobnob, where Bolsheviks plot revolutions and intellectuals discuss the merits of contemporary Russian writers, where spies spy, thieves thieve and the danger of 20th century Russia lurks outside its marbled walls. It’s also where wealthy Count Alexander Rostov lives under house arrest for a poem deemed incendiary by the Bolsheviks, and meets Nina, a precocious and wide-eyed young girl who holds the keys to the entire hotel and will irrevocably change his life. Despite being confined to the hallways of the hotel, the Count lives an absorbing, adventure-filled existence, filled with capers, conspiracies, culture, hide and seek, and a confrontation with communism. Towles magnificently conjures the grandeur of the Russian hotel and the vibrancy of the characters that call it home. —Al Woodworth


The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

Zambia

Making good on the publisher’s claim of being "the great Zambian novel you didn’t know you were waiting for," this ambitious novel follows three very different founding families across generations, from 19th-century Europe to the banks of the near-future Zambezi river. These intertwining stories of three matriarchs are as steeped in a solemn strain of magical realism as they are in actual history: the plot’s fantastical elements reveal the cruelties and absurdities of real-world colonialism. Ultimately, this novel’s chief pleasure lies in watching wildly varying lives daub together to produce a cross-century portrait of a country. —Katy Ball


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