Looking at the list of books that I read this year, I noticed there weren’t any books that spring out as definite favourite reads. But there are two books I want to mention simply because they surprised me and had something unique.
1. De Eeuw Van Mijn Vader by Geert Mak
As the title gives away, this is a Dutch book. Although some of Geert Mak’s other books have been translated to English, this one has – unforgivably – not been translated. A translation would be: “My Father’s Century”. Geert Mak is a historical non-fiction writer. I usually don’t read books from this genre but several people recommended this book to me and I’m glad I took their advice and read it.
The book focuses on his father’s life (1898-1983) with as its backdrop of the Netherlands in the twentieth century. The book therefore covers a turbulent century, which starts with how the industrial revolution influenced the common man, two world wars, the Dutch war in Indonesia and the Dutch post-war pillarisation (the segmentation of citizens according to different religions or ideologies).
What made this book so compelling is that Mak focuses on how all the historical events influenced his family, or in other words, the common man. And his family has an incredible story to tell that it almost felt like fiction. For example, during World War II his oldest brother and sister were on their own in the Netherlands almost vending for themselves. His mother and younger siblings were in a Japanese work camp in Indonesia while his father was forced to work on a railway track in the jungles of Burma.
This book is a great balance of the personal and the backdrop. There’s plenty of historical detail without it ever becoming tedious. I learned more Dutch history than I ever did in years of high school. It’s a great example of what historical non-fiction should be about – not fact and figures but people.
2. Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros
Although this book has a lot to offer and is definitely worth the read, what I found most noteworthy is its bilingual element. This is a Bildungsroman where the narrator shows how she and several family members wander between the two worlds of Mexico and the United States, all busy with their own search of survival and identity. The book is primarily English with smatterings of Spanish words, phrases and idioms.
I don’t speak a word of Spanish but I was still able to follow the story without any problems. As a bilingual speaker, its second nature to use the two languages interchangeably so the bilingual dialogue is recognisable. Bilginugal Spanish-English readers are probably able to recognise Spanish subtexts beneath the English. I could still enjoy the humour in bilingual puns or idioms that were clearly not native English.