16 culture books to diversify your reading

One of my main blog themes centres around books that explore different cultures so this is a topic that I often find myself drawn to (and means I have plenty of recommendations­čśë). Most of the books I’ve discovered about culture are from the Bookstagram community and book clubs, particularly my friend Minaal’s two book clubs which I’ve been part of this year – most of her picks were books I’d never heard of before and eight of them feature on this list (marked with a *).

In this blog, we’ll explore cultures spanning India, China and Iran, as well as Australia, Iceland and Jamaica. I can definitely promise plenty of armchair travel ­čĺ║

“It was the perfect retreat of quiet and learning. It was a sanctuary of calm and quiet; never overlit, never loud.”

The Stationery Shop – Marjan Kamali

Spotlight recommendation

Every month, I share my top recommendation. For November it is:

*The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Genre: Contemporary fiction | Indian culture

I read The Namesake not too long before writing this blog post which is probably why it’s front of mind as my top recommendation. This isn’t a book filled with twists; instead, it’s a story about an ordinary family, trying to adapt to a new life, a new country, new customs. It is a story to savour and ponder, dissect and discuss how certain themes resonate with our lives today, even if we don’t have the same cultural identity.

Quick overview

This sweeping family saga begins with an Indian couple who emigrate to America; Ashimi struggles to find her place in the new country, seeking out other Bengali families who remind her of home and who she can be herself around. Her son, Gogol, struggles with his identity, feeling neither Indian nor American, placing a big portion of the blame on the Russian name his parents chose for him. As he grows up, he tries shedding his name in an effort to fit in, until his father finally reveals the meaning behind the elusive Gogol.

Hayley’s highlights

I love books that educate about culture, especially if it’s one I’m unfamiliar with. Here are some that I’ve read recently and highly recommend:

The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

Genre: Historical fantasy fiction | Malaysian and Chinese culture

The Night Tiger is a mesmerizing story brimming with Chinese folklore, superstition, and fate, along with some severed body parts, namely thumbs.

Read my full review of The Night Tiger.

*Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia edited by Anita Heiss

Genre: Nonfiction | Australian culture

Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia is a collection of bite-sized anecdotes from Australians who recount stories and feelings related to their Aboriginal culture. The stories are insightful, educational, and difficult to digest, especially those that recall the stolen generation. I absolutely recommend the audiobook, where you can listen to and absorb each story slowly.

*The Stationery Shop [of Tehran] by Marjan Kamali

Genre: Historical fiction | Iranian culture

The Stationery Shop is, at its core, a love story between Roya and Bahman, Iranian teenagers from very different backgrounds. Set against the backdrop of Tehran in the midst of political upheaval, the two become separated when Bahman vanishes without a word. More than 60 years later, fate brings them together and questions that have haunted Roya’s life for decades can finally be answered.

The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea

Genre: Historical/gothic fiction | Icelandic culture

The Glass Woman is a mysterious tale of love and deception; when Jon’s new wife, Rosa arrives in his settlement, she is shunned by the community and haunted by the locked loft in Jon’s croft. As she tries to fit in, she hears strange things about her husband’s first wife, many of which lead her to suspect that Jon’s version of events are not as they seem.

Check out my full review of The Glass Woman.

Songbirds by Christy Lefteri

Genre: Historical fiction | Cypriot and Sri Lankan culture

Songbirds is a powerful and insightful novel about a Sri Lankan domestic worker in Cyrpus who vanishes from her employer’s home, thus uncovering a string of other disappearances of foreign women that have gone ignored.

*Augustown by Kei Miller

Genre: Magical realism/historical fiction | Jamaican culture

I don’t think I can even summarise Augustown as there’s so much to it that a brief overview just wouldn’t do it justice. In short, it is a very impactful novel that explores Jamaican history in vivid and entrancing prose that will keep you turning the pages at every opportunity.

The Cat Who Saved Books by S┼Źsuke Natsukawa

Genre: Fantasy fiction | Japenese culture

In The Cat Who Saved Books Rintaro embarks on three important book-saving missions, along with his feline sidekick. Rintaro’s success will change his whole outlook on life and lead him towards a final mission, but one he must face alone. It’s a heartwarming tale with much food for thought that bookworms will appreciate.

An Ordinary Wonder by Buki Papillon

Genre: LGBTQ+ fiction | Nigerian culture

An Ordinary Wonder is a refreshing and diverse coming-of-age story, told from the eyes of Oto; a male pseudohermaphrodite who is shunned by their parents, especially their mother who believes Oto was spawned from the devil. Raised a boy, Oto struggles with their identity, truly believing that they are a girl but unable to express these feelings in fear of further neglect and even, potentially, death.

Even more cultural reads to dive into:

  • *Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea – contemporary fiction about the hidden lives of women in Saudi Arabia (I didn’t love this one but it certainly gives you a glimpse into a ‘forbidden’ world/culture).
  • Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden – cultural Japanese fiction that gives an introduction and insight into the Geisha lifestyle (I wanted to love this one so much more but I found it slow and excessively long).
  • The Pearl that Broke its Shell by Nadia Hashimi – cultural fiction set in Afghanistan about a brotherless girl who adopts the ancient custom of bacha posh, allowing her to dress and be treated as a son for extra freedoms.
  • *The Family Tree by Sairish Hussain – contemporary fiction about a British Muslim family, covering themes around family, culture, and identity.
  • *Interpretor of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri – a collection of nuanced short stories, that explore traditional Indian cultures across continents and generations.
  • A Burning by Megha Majumdar – contemporary novel narrated by three interconnected characters, including Jivan, a Muslim girl who, after posting a rash comment on Facebook is arrested for terrorism and budding actress, Lovely, who plays a key part in Jivan’s story as her only alibi.
  • *A Single Swallow by Ling Zhang – historical fiction predominantly set in China about three men (a missionary, a gunner’s mate and a Chinese soldier) who meet up in the afterlife to share memories of war and a girl that each man loved in his own way.

* Indicates books read as part of Minaal’s book clubs.

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