Posted by: koolwine | February 4, 2016

Dominica: Unburnable

unburnable by marie-elena johnA woman returns to her homeland in order to reconcile an unsettled family history.

Country Focus: Dominica

By Marie-Elena John
Published by Amistad, 2006.
296 pgs.

Genre: Fiction

About the author: A native of Antigua, John is an advisor on gender affairs at the United Nations Office of the President of the General Assembly. She mined her mother and aunts for details of 1940s Dominica for Unburnable, her only novel.

World Lit Up Rating:
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Marie-Elena John

Marie-Elena John

Lillian, a successful Washington DC activist, has kept the details of her past a secret, even from her best friend Teddy. Now, 23 years after she left Dominica, she’s returning, and she wants Teddy to accompany her. Her relationship with Teddy, a celebrity pundit, has thus far been platonic but sexually charged. Teddy initially balks at Lillian’s invitation, but a sudden twist in their relationship changes his mind. Together, they fly off to the mountainous Caribbean island of her youth.

Unburnable tells the tale of three women: Lillian; her mother Iris, a mad prostitute; and Matilda, her grandmother who was hanged for murder. The chapters alternate between the present and the past, gradually revealing the lurid details of Lillian’s family. Lillian plans to prove her grandmother’s innocence, but Teddy worries that his unstable lover’s emotional turmoil will lead her into a complete meltdown.

John’s at her best when dishing about Lillian’s relatives and describing the Dominican culture and landscape. I thought Lillian was too aloof and manipulative of Teddy to be a sympathetic character. Teddy, whose role never evolves beyond sex toy and worrywart, didn’t appeal to me either. Even still, the book succeeds. John wrote a page-turner; I blazed right through Unburnable.


Teddy looked at Lillian on the chilly mountainside, backdropped against green, the surrounding mountains so high that only the smallest circle of sky was visible directly above them, and he understood why so many immigrants, approaching old age, return home after having built their entire life in another country. He had thought it was something sentimental about being buried in the soil of one’s homeland, but now he realized that it was because at home, in the place where they learned how to walk and to speak, they no longer had to strain.

Posted by: koolwine | January 28, 2016

Togo: An African in Greenland

An African in Greenland by Tete-Michel KpomassieEnchanted by a book about Greenland, a Togolese teenager heads north to live with the Inuit.

Country Focus: Togo

An African in Greenland
By Tété-Michel Kpomassie
Translated by James Kirkup
Introduction by A. Alvarez
Originally published in Paris by Flammarion as Africain du Groenland, 1981.
My edition: New York Review Books, 2001
300 pgs

Genre: Memoir/Travelogue

About the author: Kpomassie won the Prix Littéraire Francophone International for An African in Greenland.  He lives in France, but returns to Greenland often and plans to move there permanently.

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While high in a palm tree cutting coconuts, the young Kpomassie gets frightened by a snake and leaps to the ground, injuring himself grievously. His father takes him to the renowned healer of a python cult in the nearby sacred forest. Kpomassie recovers. As payment for his son’s life, the priestess asks that Kpomassie return to the forest in six weeks to join her priesthood.

Horrified by this proposition, Kpomassie dreads his fate. By pure chance, he happens upon a book that will change his life forever: The Eskimos from Greenland to Alaska by Dr. Robert Gessain. Charmed by the photos and the description of a culture so different from his own (no snakes!), he decides to hightail it to Greenland.

An African in Greenland is the account of how he reaches Greenland—an eight-year journey—and the two winters he spends in that distant land. The majority of the book takes place in Greenland and describes the peculiar culture of the Inuit..

Kpomassie’s story boggles the mind. I was astonished both by his dogged pursuit of his destination, and especially by his ability to arrive in an utterly foreign environment, learn the language, make friends, and earn travelling money. He’s also talented writer. His unique perspective, surprising eloquence, honesty and keen descriptions makes An African in Greenland a fascinating read.

Tete-Michel Kpomassie

Tete-Michel Kpomassie


My final preparations had been simple. A stroll around Nyhavn, a picturesque district near the harbor, enabled me to pick up an old pair of American army boots at a bargain price, an overcoat with a quilted lining, two woolen pullovers, and two pairs of mittens. This was the extent of the equipment I assembled to answer the call of the north. I suppose I was traveling light. My adoptive father had presented me with an ancient folding camera that he had owned for a quarter of a century. Finally, I bought some paper for a diary. All this was squashed into a rucksack.

I had decided to travel by ship: it would be rash for someone like me suddenly to come up against intense cold after only a few hours’ flight, whereas a sea voyage of several days would allow me to adapt gradually to the climate. Quite a sensible idea, coming from one so often accused of lacking common sense.

Posted by: koolwine | December 11, 2015

Gabon: Between Man and Beast

between man and beast by monte reelThe first westerner who verifies the existence of gorillas sets off a firestorm of controversy.

Country Focus: Gabon

Between Man and Beast: An Unlikely Explorer and the African Adventure That Took the Victorian World By Storm
By Monte Reel
Published by Doubleday, 2013.
331 pgs.

Genre: Nonfiction

About the author:  Monte Reel, an ex-journalist for The Washington Post, also wrote The Last of the Tribe: The Epic Quest to Save a Lone Man in the Amazon. He lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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Between Man and Beast is the story of Paul Du Chaillu, an amateur explorer who ventured deep into the jungles of Gabon in 1865 in search of the legendary gorilla. At the time, the only evidence of these fabled beasts were stories told by native tribesmen and a few skeletons carried from the country’s mysterious interior.

Monte Reel

Monte Reel

Du Chaillu’s expedition was a success. He arrived in New York City five years later replete with taxidermied gorillas, numerous other previously unseen species, spellbinding stories of indigenous tribespeople, and a passion for sharing his findings.

The great apes hit a nerve. Du Chaillu’s return to the West coincided with Charles Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species and the American Civil War. In England, the proof of the existence of gorillas – our ancestors, evolutionary theory suggested – intensified the debates over Darwin’s controversial ideas. In America, proponents of slavery crudely equated blacks with gorillas to support their twisted institution. These aftereffects of Du Chaillu’s discovery —rather than his adventures in Gabon—take center stage in Between Man and Beast.

A charismatic figure with a mysterious background, Paul Du Chaillu makes an excellent protagonist. At first feted for his exploits, the man was later smeared for not having been scientific enough in his descriptions or exact enough when figuring his locations. In 1863, he returned to Gabon with the intention of putting all doubts of his claims to rest.

Du Chaillu’s two expeditions bookend this highly entertaining piece of nonfiction. Reel did a staggering amount of research and coughed it up into a rip-roaring read. Readers keen on gorillas and scientific intrigue couldn’t ask for more. However, for a more satisfying look at Gabon, I’d have done better by reading either or both of Du Chaillu’s own books. Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa, and A Journey to Ashango-Land: and Further Penetration into Equatorial Africa are considered by Gabonese and French experts to be outstanding resources on mid-19th century Gabon.


Paul Du Chaillu

Paul Du Chaillu


When he bade farewell to the Fang, the tribe seemed truly sad to see him go, and they presented him with gifts and promises of loyalty and affection. Paul never dropped his certainty that they were cannibals. But just as the caníbales that Columbus had described believed the Spaniards themselves were man-eating savages, it seemed that the Fang harbored their own myths concerning Europeans.

One of them confessed to Paul that his tribe had heard stories about the fiercely cannabalistic ways of white men. Paul’s first instinct was to laugh him off as a simpleminded fool. But the legend hadn’t been conjured from thin air. When Paul tried to assure him that white men didn’t eat black men, the man confronted him with a direct challenge: explain why they bought and sold Africans as if they were cattle, not human beings.

“Why do you come from nobody knows where, and carry off our men, and women, and children?” the man asked Paul. “Do you not fatten them in your far country and eat them?”

Posted by: koolwine | November 29, 2015

Mali: Monique and the Mango Rains

monique and the mango rains by kris hollowayA Peace Corps volunteer assists and befriends a gifted Malian midwife.

Country Focus: Mali

Monique and the Mango Rains: Two Years with a Midwife in Mali
By Kris Holloway
Consulting editor: John Bidwell
Published by Waveland Press, 2007.
212 pgs.

Genre: Nonfiction/Memoir 

About the author: Kris Holloway is currently the Senior Director of University Relations and Marketing for CISabroad, a study and intern abroad program. She has not written any other books.

World Lit Up Rating:
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Kris Holloway

Kris Holloway

Posted to a small village in Mali called Nampossela, Peace Corps volunteer Kris Holloway quickly befriends her host family’s daughter-in-law, Monique Dembele. Monique speaks French fluently—unlike most of the other villagers—which enables her to communicate freely with Kris, also an able French speaker. The twenty-four-year-old runs the village clinic on her own and has earned a reputation as an excellent midwife. She works long hours with few resources and little pay, all while carrying her infant son on her back.

Kris begins assisting Monique in the clinic. The building sports a leaky roof, dirt floors and no running water or waste disposal. Life is tenuous for mothers and newborns in rural Mali. Disease and malnutrition are prevalent. Birth control is not available to most women, and almost all Malian women have had their genitals “cut,” making birth even more difficult. Monique spends much of her time educating women on how to keep themselves and their babies healthy.

Work cements Monique’s and Kris’s friendship. They laugh together and share their ups and downs. An arranged marriage has burdened Monique with a selfish and self-absorbed husband, but she treasures her secret boyfriend in the city. Kris falls in love with a fellow Peace Corps worker.

If Kris and Monique’s friendship is the heart of Monique and the Mango Rains, then Monique is inarguably the book’s soul. The reader learns in the book’s introduction that Monique dies in childbirth, but knowing that grim fact in advance doesn’t make her death at the end of the book any easier to take. Independent, smart and upbeat, Monique made the best of a life that was extremely difficult. Monique and the Mango Rains serves as a tribute to this remarkable young woman.

Monique Dembele

Monique Dembele


Like smoke, I drifted to the corner of the room and down to my knees. I felt overcome with awe and fatigue. I couldn’t believe we all got here this way. I couldn’t believe that here, in this dilapidated box, Monique, with a sixth-grade education and nine months of medical training, was birthing babies. Lots of babies. She was responsible for the future of this village. No electricity, no running water, no safety net of ambulances and emergency rooms. I knew that Mali had one of the highest rates of maternal death in the world. I’d read a sobering statistic that placed a Malian woman’s lifetime risk of dying in pregnancy and childbirth around one in twelve, compared to a U.S. woman’s risk of one in over three thousand. Even if one accounts for the fact that Malian women have many more children than American women, and thus are at risk for more years, the difference in the death rate is still huge. Monique was constantly battling the odds. It was so awful, so miraculous.

Posted by: koolwine | November 22, 2015

Uzbekistan: Chasing the Sea

chasing the sea by tom bissellAn ex-Peace Corps volunteer returns to Uzbekistan to purge his inner demons and write about the ill-fated Aral Sea.

Country Focus: Uzbekistan (O’zbekiston in Uzbek)

Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia
By Tom Bissell
Published by Pantheon Books, 2003.
388 pgs.

Genre: Nonfiction

About the author: Bissell has written about topics as disparate as the Vietnam War and the world’s worst movie. He’s also an ardent gamer who’s scripted video games, including the award-winning The Vanishing of Ethan Carver. Bissell’s next book, Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve, will publish in 2016.

World Lit Up Rating:
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Tom Bissell

Tom Bissell

Tom Bissell first arrived in Uzbekistan in 1996 as a Peace Corps volunteer. He didn’t stay long; a girl back home and acute gastric distress got the better of him and he skipped out early. Upon returning home, the girl got away and the diarrhea stopped. However, Bissell’s failure to live up to his service commitment nagged at him. Five years later, he received a story assignment which would give him a second chance at Uzbekistan: the doomed Aral Sea.

In 1960 the Aral Sea was the fourth largest freshwater lake in the world. Ill-schemed irrigation by the Soviets shrunk it to a whisper of its former self. Split into eastern and western lobes at the time of Bissell’s travels, the Sea’s eastern portion ran completely dry in October 2015.

Chasing the Sea describes way more than this disturbing environmental catastrophe. After arriving in the capital city of Tashkent, Bissell pairs up with an Uzbeki translator named Rustam and they set out on the road for Uzbekistan’s most historically renowned cities, Samarkand and Bukhara. Part buddy road trip narrative, part Uzbeki historical and cultural information center, and part ecological disaster story, Chasing the Sea is both exhaustive in its breadth and entertaining in its construction. An utterly satisfying read.


Rustam head-shakingly regarded me. “What do you have against the Soviets? Don’t you realize that without the Soviets I would have never been educated?  That I would never have gone to America? Everything Uzbekistan has is because of the Soviets, dude. Uzbeks are simple people. The Soviets made us modern. Look at Afghanistan. The Soviets lost the war, right? But maybe if they had won, it would not be so unhappy there. Maybe the Taliban would not exist, and maybe all those fucking Muslims would not feel so free to kill and destroy.”

“It’s complicated. I admit that.”

“Actually,” he said, “It’s not complicated. I have just explained it to you.”

Posted by: koolwine | November 15, 2015

Belize: The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw

the last flight of the scarlet macaw by bruce barcottAn intrepid zookeeper opposes the building of a dam that threatens to doom Belize’s scarlet macaw population to extinction.

Country Focus: Belize

The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman’s Fight to Save the World’s Most Beautiful Bird
By Bruce Barcott
Published by Random House, 2008.
313 pgs.

Genre: Nonfiction

About the author: Barcott, a highly regarded American environmental journalist, has also written Northwest Passages: A Literary Anthology of the Pacific Northwest from Coyote Tales to Roadside AttractionsThe Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier, and Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America.

World Lit Up Rating:
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Bruce Barcott

Bruce Barcott

Sharon Matola, a free-spirited American woman who runs the Belize Zoo, treasures her adopted country’s scarlet macaws. When she learns of the Belizean government’s plans to dam the nearby Macal River and create a reservoir, she fears the worst. The macaws’ nesting sites lie in the valley that the new reservoir will inundate. This habitat is irreplaceable, and without it the birds will not be able to successfully reproduce. Matola begins a risky campaign against the dam, and Barcott relays her impassioned struggle to save the colorful and charismatic macaws.

The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw focuses primarily on Matola and roots for her side, but that does not mean that Barcott snubs the opposition. Belizeans desperately need more electrical power, and the proposed Chalillo dam appears to be their best option. Barcott speaks to the Belizean politicians in favor of the dam, the power company executives who will build and own the dam, geologists, lawyers, and environmentalists. He shares his research on Belizean history and politics, species extinction, and the esoteric court that hears the final appeal against the dam. Barcott’s thoroughness is matched by quick pacing and readability.

Sharon Matola

Sharon Matola


“This zoo is my life’s work. I’ve spent fifteen years building it up from nothing. When I came to Mile 28 in 1982 all that was there were orphan animals and bush. I bottle-fed some of the animals as babies. Those animals are grandparents now. Those animals, they change people’s lives. Before the zoo was there, most Belizeans went their entire lives without seeing a tapir. If they saw a jaguar, they shot it. If they saw a macaw, they roasted it like chicken. They don’t do that anymore, and do you know why? Because they take their kids to the zoo on Sundays and they see the birds and they read the signs and they find out that there are fewer than two hundred macaws alive in the entire country. Belizeans aren’t stupid. It’s just that nobody gave them the information. Nobody came along and said, Say, you know what? These macaws are extremely rare and they’re yours. They’re Belize’s birds. You should be proud of them.”

Posted by: koolwine | October 25, 2015

Solomon Islands: One Blood

One-Blood-by-Graeme-KentA nun and a police sergeant team up to investigate a murder that occurred on church grounds.

Country Focus: Solomon Islands (formerly British Solomon Islands)

One Blood
By Graeme Kent
My edition: Soho Press, 2011
274 pgs

Genre: Mystery

About the author: Graeme Kent spent eight years working in the Solomon Islands. One Blood is the second of three “Sister Conchita and Sergeant Kella” mysteries. The first is Devil-Devil, and the third is Killman. Kent has also authored several nonfiction books.

World Lit Up Rating:
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Graeme Kent

Graeme Kent

I purchased One Blood thinking it was the first book in the series. Cutting to the second book did not leave me at a disadvantage. Author Graeme Kent clearly lays out the main characters and their situations. The year is 1960. Sister Conchita, a feisty 26-year-old American nun, is shocked and saddened when a tourist—one whom she had spoken with minutes before—is found dead at the Marakosi Mission’s open house. Sister Conchita believes his death to be a homicide, but the authorities are writing it off as a heart attack.

When Sergeant Ben Kella arrives at Marakosi on another case, Sister Conchita enlists his help. Could the logging saboteurs he’s investigating have something to do with the man’s death? Or are the victim’s sinister traveling companions who have a dogged fascination with the islands where John F. Kennedy was marooned during World War II be responsible?

There are several reasons why the Solomon Islands provide a fascinating backdrop to this story: an impending transition from British protectorate to independent country; its history as a World War II battleground; and an indigenous population who claim headhunters as their ancestors. One Blood succeeds as a light, fast-paced, PG-rated mystery with a charming pair of protagonists.


[Sister Conchita] walked down the beach and waited for the policeman to drag his canoe up on to the sand. She was always pleased to see Kella, but was already experiencing her usual feelings of ambivalence about the burly Malaita man. She simply could not make up her mind about him. She had known him for less than a year, but already he had impressed her more than any man she had ever met. The islander was perceptive and intuitive, and she knew from personal experience that he was physically courageous. But, she worried, all these things had to be balanced against the fact that he was a pagan. More than that, he was a high priest of the Lau gods, elected while only a child to this office, charged to spend his life maintaining peace among the Malaitans.

Posted by: koolwine | October 17, 2015

Slovakia: Siren of the Waters

siren of the waters by michael genelinAn investigation into a fatal car wreck puts Commander Jana Matinova on the trail of a vicious killer.  

Country Focus: Slovakia (Slovensko in Slovak)

Siren of the Waters
By Michael Genelin
My edition: Soho Press, 2008
328 pgs

Genre: Mystery

About the author: Michael Genelin followed Siren of the Waters with three more crime novels featuring Commander Jana Matinova: Dark Dreams, The Magician’s Accomplice, and Requiem for a Gypsy. He lived in Slovakia for three years while working as an anti-corruption expert.

World Lit Up Rating:
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Michael Genelin

Michael Genelin

Genelin introduces his heroine, Jana Matinova, in this first of a series of crime novels based in Bratislava, Slovakia. Roughly half of Siren of the Waters is spent divulging Jana’s tragic past. As a young police officer in Czechoslovakia, she married Dano, a promising actor. A reckless confrontation with the Secret Police turns Dano into a outcast, gets Jana demoted, and sets off a cascading series of events that threatens to destroy the couple and their daughter. This subplot weaves into the main storyline, which involves human trafficking and an internationally feared über-criminal, Koba.


Jana  continued to stare at the thug. The man looked down , pretending to be busy, pushing glasses around, moving bottles, only looking up after he realized that the police officer sitting in front of him was not going to go away.

“How did you know I was a police officer?”

“I’m good at that.”

“Lots of dealings with the police?”


“Your name?”

Seges whipped out his pad and ballpoint. The thug’s bald head swiveled between the two cops, coming back to Jana as the one who presented a threat.

Posted by: koolwine | October 1, 2015

Georgia: Stories I Stole

stories i stole by wendell steavensonAn outsider’s view of Georgia’s disparate regions and peoples.

Country Focus: Georgia (Sak’art’velo in Georgian)

Stories I Stole: From Georgia
By Wendell Steavenson
Originally published in Great Britain by Atlantic Books in 2002.
My edition: Grove Press, 2002
277 pgs

Genre: Memoir

About the author: Steavenson lived in Tbilisi, Georgia for two years. She has also written The Weight of a Mustard Seed: The Intimate Story of an Iraqi General and His Family During Thirty Years of Tyranny and Circling the Square: Stories from the Egyptian Revolution.

World Lit Up Rating:
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Wendell Steavenson

Wendell Steavenson

Steavenson is clearly fond of Georgia and its citizens. She traveled widely throughout the country and crafted stories that address the complex situations of Georgia’s many different ethnic groups. An informative ‘Ethnic Glossary’ complements the narrative. 


Georgia was a funny place. Betsy and I had once tried to figure out why we liked it and why we had stayed so long. When nothing worked and the corruption was terrible and there was no electricity in the winter and nothing but heat in the summer. The cities were falling down and rusting, the countryside was scarred by the Soviets. Georgia was cut off from the world, poor and without much imagination. It did not like to go forward, it was happy enough wallowing in its traditions and wine. ‘I think it’s the quality of life,’ I told her. It sounded absurd, but Betsy nodded, she knew what I was talking about. ‘The little things, my neighbor bringing me varenie for the winter, strawberries that are soft and fresh and taste of real strawberries, being able to park right next to the post office, warm balcony evenings, friendliness, easiness. The pace of life is slower, it’s more comfortable-‘

Posted by: koolwine | August 28, 2015

Free Books! (Round 13)

For every ten books I read, I’ll hold a book giveaway. Here’s how to claim a free book:

  • Check out the list of books up for grabs.  There is only one copy of each book available (I am giving away my used copy of each book).
  • If you see one you want, comment on this page.  Your comment must include the name of the book you want, and at least a word or two about the country that the book concerns.  First person to comment gets the book.
  • I’ll mail the book out to you (at no cost you you whatsoever) if you have an address within the continental United States.  The book will ship out at book rate, which means it might take ten or more days to reach you.
  • Keep in mind that most of the time I buy my books used, which means they may be marked up, covers bent, etc.  Book condition will be variable.
  • Claims must be made no later than one month after posting date. September 28, 2015 is the deadline for requesting a book from Round 13.

Here’s the current round of books up for grabs:

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