Posted May 13, 2013 by in Book Lists

Reading Abroad: Books to Read When You Don’t Speak the Language

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Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

“First novels by poets” is a genre that should have its own section in the bookstore. This semi-autobiographical bildungsroman follows Adam, a young poet abroad on a Fulbright fellowship to Spain, as he lies to gain sympathy from Spanish friends whose conversation he doesn’t always follow; gets high; makes poems; and witnesses the 2004 terrorist attacks in Madrid. When Adam fumbles his second language—sometimes on purpose—he also reinvents the world around him, to disorienting effect.

Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee

In this classic novel of immigration, Henry Park is caught in between his adopted American culture and his native Korean one. Both seem to elude him the more he tries to assimilate—to become a “native speaker.” Hired to spy on a Korean-American politician in New York City, he becomes the subject of an internal, cultural tug-of-war, while finding himself embroiled in the inter-ethnic tensions of the city.

How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less by Sarah Glidden

Lots of young American Jews go on Birthright Israel trips, which often feature infamous back-of-the-bus groping and tour guides’ whirlwind attempts to explain the history of a fraught region. But few of those young Jews return home to write a graphic novel about it. Sarah Glidden offers a skeptic’s portrait of the trip, painting the charismatic people who try to build emotional connections between the sometimes ignorant young travelers and the Jewish state. But her guarded approach is challenged by a guide who genuinely wants to discuss each issue from both sides, as well as by her own unexpected emotional reactions to what she sees. Instead of feeling like she’s had a near miss with brainwashing, Glidden leaves shaken by the realization that we “choose who to trust” about complicated issues, whether it’s a newspaper, a tour guide, or our own eyes.

La Perdida by Jessica Abel

Another graphic novel about a woman abroad looking for her roots, La Perdida follows Carla, who “just goes” to Mexico, partly to look for her estranged father, partly to see if her idea of the country really exists somewhere. “Somehow it seemed I would like [my Mexican roots] more than my Anglo ones, which makes no sense if you think about it.” Carla has a tentative plan to crash with her wealthy “ex-something” for just a few days, but stays in the country for two years. Written in Spanish and English (with footnoted translations for the non-bilingual), this is a graphic novel about youth and illusion, but also about throwing yourself into what you don’t know you know.

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Leah Falk