Posted by: koolwine | July 16, 2015

Return Trip: South Africa

Sometimes one book per country isn’t enough. Now that I’m on the lookout for international authors, their books jump out at me and I can’t refuse them even if I’ve already covered their territory. I’ve sneaked these books in between my “official” reading. I thought I’d share them with you.

In a Strange Room: Three Journeys 

by Damon Galgut
Europa Editions, 2010 • 207 pgs

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut
Summary:  A man goes on three long journeys, each time accompanied by a different person. By turns, he plays the part of follower, lover, and guardian (the names of the three sections of the book), or more honestly, the would-be follower, lover and guardian because he never fully commits to any of those roles. A haunting look at identity and missed emotional connections.
Genre: Fiction
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A journey is a gesture inscribed in space, it vanishes even as it’s made. You go from one place to another place, and on to somewhere else again, and already behind you there is no trace that you were ever there. The roads you went down yesterday are full of different people now, none of them knows who you are. In the room you slept in last night a stranger lies in the bed. Dust covers over your footprints, the marks of your fingers are wiped off the door, from the floor and table the bits and pieces of evidence that you might have dropped are swept up and thrown away and they never come back again. The very air closes behind you like water and soon your presence, which felt so weighty and permanent, has completely gone. Things happen once only and are never repeated, never return. Except in memory.

Posted by: koolwine | July 11, 2015

Return Trip: France and Japan (via Italy)

Sometimes one book per country isn’t enough. Now that I’m on the lookout for international authors, their books jump out at me and I can’t refuse them even if I’ve already covered their territory. I’ve sneaked these books in between my “official” reading. I thought I’d share them with you.

Silk • Seta

by Alessandro Baricco • Translated from Italian by Guido Waldman
Originally published in 1996 in Milan by Rizzoli
My edition: Vintage International, 1998 • 91 pgs

Silk by Alessandro Baricco
Summary: A French silk merchant travels to the then forbidden country of Japan and finds himself irresistibly drawn to a mysterious woman.
Genre: Fiction
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They slid back a rice-paper panel and Hervé Joncour stepped inside. Hara Kei was seated cross-legged on the floor in the the furthest corner of the room. He wore a dark tunic and no jewelry. The only visible sign of his authority was a woman lying beside him, motionless, her head in his lap, eyes shut, her arms concealed in the folds of an ample red dress which spread out about her on the ash-covered mat like a flame. He was slowly running a hand through her hair: it was as if he were stroking some luxurious sleeping animal.

Posted by: koolwine | July 8, 2015

Andorra: Nine Legends

Nine Legends by Carli BastidaTalking wolves, mysterious strangers, and the tiny but persistent minairons populate these amusing Andorran folktales.

Country Focus: Andorra

Nine Legends
By Carli Bastida
Translated by Anselm Goicoechea Fiter
Illustrated by Arnau Pérez Orobitg
My edition: Editorial Andorra Guies, 2011 (French, Spanish, and Catalan editions also available)
127 pgs

Genre: Folktales

About the author: Andorran born Carli Bastida is primarily a translator and linguistic researcher.

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Illustration by Arnau Perez Orobitg

Illustration by Arnau Perez Orobitg


—Listen closely—said an old man, drawing near the cloud of tiny creatures that were flying over the dead man’s head. —These are neither flies nor mosquitoes. These are minairons.

Despite having heard about them a few times and that people said one of the richest men in the Andorran valleys owned a matchbox full of them, for better or for worse, the young men from the village had never had the chance of seeing minairons. Immediately, they forgot about the unexplained scree and the dead man, put their heads together, listened, and heard clearly that the buzzing was not a buzzing, but a thousand tiny voices shouting:

—What shall we do?! What shall we say?! What shall we do?! What shall we say?! What shall we do?! What shall we say?!

Posted by: koolwine | July 5, 2015

Kiribati: The Sex Lives of Cannibals

The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten TroottA comical look at the sobering realities of life on a South Pacific atoll.

Country Focus: Kiribati

The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific
By J. Maarten Troost
Published by Broadway Books, 2004.
272 pgs.

Genre: Memoir

About the author: Troost, a native of the Netherlands, has written three other travelogues: Getting Stoned with the Savages, Lost on Planet China, and Headhunters on My Doorstep.

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J. Maarten Troost

J. Maarten Troost


To picture Kiribati, imagine that the continental U.S. were to conveniently disappear leaving only Baltimore and a vast swath of very blue ocean in its place. Now chop up Baltimore into thirty-three pieces, place a neighborhood were Maine used to be, another where California once was, and so on until you have thirty-three pieces of Baltimore dispersed in such a way so as to ensure that 32/33 of Baltimorians will never attend an Orioles game again. Now take away electricity, running water, toilets, television, restaurants, buildings, and airplanes (except for two very old prop planes, tended by people who have no word for “maintenance”). Replace with thatch. Flatten all land into a uniform two feet above sea level. Toy with islands by melting polar ice caps. Add palm trees. Sprinkle with hepatitis A, B, and C. Stir in dengue fever and intestinal parasites. Take away doctors. Isolate and bake at a constant temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The result is the Republic of Kiribati.

Posted by: koolwine | May 7, 2015

Taiwan: A Thousand Moons on a Thousand Rivers

A Thousand Moons on a Thousand Rivers by Hsiao Li-Hung

A country girl falls in love with a city boy.

Country Focus: Taiwan

A Thousand Moons on a Thousand Rivers
By Hsaio Li-Hung
Translated by Michelle Wu
Foreward by Pang-Yuan Chi
Originally published in Chinese in 1981.
My edition: Columbia University Press, 2000
304 pgs

Genre: Fiction

About the author: Hsiao Li-hung is one of Taiwan’s most widely read female authors. She may also be the most elusive; I found only the barest write-up about her and no images.

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A Thousand Moons on a Thousand Rivers tells the story of a young woman named Zhenguan and her budding romantic relationship with Daxin, a distant relative from Taipei. Zhenguan lives in sleepy, seaside town with her large extended family: brother, parents, grandparents, five sets of aunts and uncles, and thirteen cousins (all of the cousins’ names start with the letter “Y”. It was impossible for me to keep them straight). Daxin is the nephew of Zhenguan’s fourth aunt. He and Zhenguan meet when he comes to spend part of the summer with his aunt. An incident during this visit sparks a connection between them. Daxin sends Zhenguan friendly, mildly flirtatious letters; she responds shyly at first and then opens up. Propriety constrains their relationship, but their growing fondness for each other can be read between the lines.

The couple’s old-timey courtship is not the only element that belies the novel’s 1970s setting. Zhenguan’s family follows the rhythms of the seasons and celebrates all of the traditional festivals with homemade decorations and home-cooked food. With few exceptions, the characters work hard, study hard, honor their ancestors, and maintain decorum at all times. Filial love—the love for one’s parents and the desire to care for them in their old age—is a recurring theme. A sprinkling of folktales, colloquial sayings, and song lyrics add to the feel of a bygone Taiwan.

Although the characters could be described as hokey and Zhenguan’s and Daxin’s relationship takes a strange turn, A Thousand Moons on a Thousand Rivers succeeds in providing insight into Taiwan’s culture. Hsiao Li-hung’s book became an immediate bestseller in Taiwan and has been reprinted over sixty times since its publication in 1981. The fact that this story connects so strongly with its country’s citizens makes it the perfect book to represent Taiwan for this project.


Zhenguan thought: ten, twenty years from now, she would be running a household, and like her grandmother and mother, she planned to observe the rituals and customs that accompanied all the seasons and the days of the year. She would pay respect to their ancestors and honor the past. Chinese proverbs say that though one’s ancestors are far away, one must honor them sincerely. Everyone must read the classics, no matter what…

Someday she would wake up in the middle of the night to pay homage to the sky and the earth and the gods. And she would be nervous about lighting the firecrackers. How she hoped that there would be someone like Daxin to help her send her wishes to the Jade Emperor on his heavenly throne!

Posted by: koolwine | April 28, 2015

Honduras: Don’t Be Afraid, Gringo

Don't Be Afraid, Gringo A peasant woman fights for her fellow campesinos‘ rights to farm uncultivated land, an entitlement too often denied by wealthy landowners.

Country Focus: Honduras

Don’t Be Afraid, Gringo: A Honduran Woman Speaks from the Heart: The Story of Elvia Alvarado
Translated and edited by Medea Benjamin
Forward by Elvia Alvarado
Introduction by Medea Benjamin
Originally published by The Institute for Food and Development Policy, 1987
My edition: Perennial Library, 1989
169 pgs

Genre: Memoir

About the author: I could find no current information whatsoever on Elvia Alvarado, and the state of Honduran activism is disheartening. Just last week, NGO Global Witness reported that Honduras ranks as “deadliest country in the world to be a land and environmental defender.” One hundred and eleven Honduran activists—mostly campesinos—have been murdered since 2002.*

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Elvia Alvarado is a woman of true grit. Born into a campesino (peasant) family, she endures the worst that poverty had to offer: she lives in a hut with a dirt floor and no running water, has limited access to education, faces endless toil, eats a diet limited to tortillas and beans (and that’s on a good day), and has virtually no access to transportation or health care.

Despite and because of her hardships, Alvarado is one of many campesinos involved in land recovery. The land recovery movement is based on the Agrarian Reform Law of 1975. This law gives campesinos the right to farm any land that a landowner is not using for a specific, functional purpose. However, landowners rarely abide by this law. Campesinos have been tortured and killed for attempting to recover land.

Don’t Be Afraid, Gringo is taken from 30 hours of recorded interviews with Elvia Alvarado. The book, organized into chapters, reads as though Alvarado is talking to the reader directly. Her bravery is remarkable, and her belief that the campesinos can lift themselves from poverty if only given some land is compelling. She explains the obstacles that she and her fellow campesinos face with an intelligence that belies her second grade education.

It’s been almost three decades since Alvarado shared her story with the world, and I would have hoped that she’d have succeeded in seeing her people raise themselves up. Unfortunately, recent news stories report that the campesinos are still fighting for their happy ending.

Elvia Alvarado

Elvia Alvarado


We’re fighting so that we, too, can share our nation’s wealth. We’re fighting so that we, too, can live well. We all want to have good houses-with cement floors instead of dirt, with running water to take a shower and clean water to drink. We all want electricity so we don’t have to ruin our eyes with those gas lights we use. We all want real bathrooms with toilets that flush and sinks that have running water. Of course we want those things. Aren’t we humans beings? Don’t we have the same rights that rich people do?

Why should there be rich people that have more than they need and poor who don’t have anything? God didn’t plan it that way. He planned for us to be equals. That’s why we have to build a society where everyone has the right to lead a decent life.

*David Hill. (April 22, 2015) Honduras is world’s number one for killing environmental activists. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Posted by: koolwine | April 6, 2015

Macedonia: Freud’s Sister


A fictionalized telling of the life of Adolfina Freud, one of  four sisters whom Sigmund Freud left behind to die in a Nazi concentration camp.

Country Focus: Macedonia (Makedonija in Macedonian

Freud’s Sister
By Goce Smilevski
Translated by Christina E. Kramer
Originally published in Macedonian by Dijalong as Sestrata na Zigmund Frojd, 2011.
My edition: Penguin, 2012
266 pgs

Genre: Fiction

About the author: A native Macedonian, Smilevski teaches at Ss. Cyril Methodius University’s Institute for Literature in the capital city of Skopje. Freud’s Sister won him the European Prize for Literature.

Note: Aside from its authorship, Freud’s Sister has nothing whatsoever to do with Macedonia. Contemporary, translated fiction set in Macedonia and written by a Macedonian has eluded me. I’ll re-post if I come across any.

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In an opening note, Smilevski writes that historians know very little about Adolfina Freud—the youngest sister of Sigmund Freud—other than her doom. For Adolfina’s sake, I hope he got the rest of her story very, very wrong.

The novel opens 1938. Hitler has just occupied Austria, home to Sigmund Freud and his four sisters. Jews in Vienna face increasing anti-Semitism and violence. Freud’s international colleagues fear for the Jewish psychoanalyst’s life, and they convince him to depart for London. Freud arranges exit visas for himself, his wife, their children, his wife’s sister, two housekeepers, his doctor and his doctor’s family and his dog, but not his sisters, including his favorite, Adolfina. Left to the mercy of the Nazis, the women die in a concentration camp in 1942.

After these ghastly opening chapters, I thought the worst was over. I was wrong. Adolfina, the novel’s protagonist and first-person narrator, began her suffering decades before the gas chamber ended it. She grows up with her mother’s cruel mantra ringing her in ears: “It would have been better if I had not given birth to you.” She falls in love with a man who succumbs to severe depression. One of her friends dies of an illness. Another ends up in a “madhouse.” Crushed by her own personal tragedy, Adolfina becomes her roomie. (As long as the patient paid for room and board, they could stay in the madhouse regardless of their mental state.) Together they bear witness to the madness of the people within its walls, and engage the head of the hospital in discussions about the definition of madness  and whether or not it can be cured.

Readers with some background in Sigmund Freud’s work may find deeper meaning in Freud’s Sister than readers unfamiliar with his beliefs (like me). The questions that I think the book poses include: Who decides who is mad? How can one stop madness? What sort of madness enveloped Freud when he willfully refused to save his sisters from the Nazis? These questions are particularly thorny considering the novel’s backdrop. Under Hitler, madness ruled.

Goce Smilevski

Goce Smilevski


I sat in my room and thought of my conversation with my brother. I thought of the humane sentiment he had expressed as we stood between the older Madonna with the crucified Jesus and the Madonna with the child Jesus: that the greatest aim the human race must strive for is to allow each person to live his life with the least possible suffering, and for each person to contribute to the realization of that ideal. On that February day in 1933, Sigmund truly believed this, but a different sequence of events was already in motion. Germany had a new leader, and our sisters had returned to Vienna. When the new German leader occupied Austria as well, my brother left for London with those whose lives he had chosen to spare; we, his sisters, were deported to first one camp, then to another. In those moments of suffering that my sisters and I lived through, his words that each person should strive for there to be the least possible suffering in this world sounded to me like ridicule.

Posted by: koolwine | March 24, 2015

Moldova: The Good Life Elsewhere

The Good Life Elsewhere by Vladimir Lorchenkov

Moldovan villagers hatch outrageous plans to escape to Italy.

Country Focus: Moldova

The Good Life Elsewhere
By Vladimir Lorchenkov
Translated by Ross Ufberg
Originally published in Russian as Vse tam budem, 2008.
My edition: New Vessel Press, 2014
197 pgs

Genre: Fiction

About the author: Lorchenkov, a journalist by trade, has published twelve novels, including a sequel to The Good Life Elsewhere called Tabor Leaves. He lives in Chisinau, Moldova’s capital, but plans to emigrate to Canada because “I do not want to see [my children] growing up in a country where tuberculosis is as familiar a disease as the sniffles, and where a pack of stray dogs can tear a person apart on the main street.”*

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Jobs and cash are hard to come to by in Moldova, so the impoverished inhabitants of one small town dream of easier lives in Italy. The Italian authorities routinely deny all Moldovan visa requests, so any would-be émigrés must sneak in. The Good Life Elsewhere details Serafim Botezatu’s and his fellow villagers’ absurd attempts to make it to their promised land: paying 4,000 euros apiece to a “tourism agency” to bus them under cover of darkness to Rome; taking up the sport of curling (even though they don’t have an ice rink) in hopes of being invited to compete in Italy; building a plane out of tractor parts to fly over the Italian border; drumming up participants for the “First Holy Crusade of Eastern Orthodox Religions” to march into Italy; and constructing a submarine out of tractor and bicycle parts to pedal underwater until reaching Italy’s Mediterranean coast.

Yes, The Good Life Elsewhere would make one heck of a Monty Python movie. Black humor abounds. Lorchenkov ends almost all of the book’s short and amusing chapters with a dark or silly twist, which makes the novel a quick and entertaining read. The outrageous ending doesn’t disappoint.

Before the story ends, Lorchenkov does slip in a brief moment of ernestness when one of the villagers challenges the Italy-or-bust crowd to channel all of their creative energies toward improving Moldova rather than leaving it. “Italy—the real Italy—is in ourselves!” he cries. He’s promptly tortured and killed.

The desire to stay in one’s homeland and work for its betterment it too often clash with the need for safety and work. Until those basic needs are supplied by their governments, people around the world—including Lorchenkov himself—will seek the good life elsewhere.

Vladimir Lorchenkov

Vladimir Lorchenkov


“We’re gonna make it to Italy. Everything’ll change,” said Serafim. “There’ll be no more Moldovan mud in our lives, no more terrible poverty hanging over our heads like a scab on a bald tramp’s noggin. No more of this interminable, hellish work, which makes you want to howl louder than a dog on the doorstep of a penny-pinching priest. […] “Serafim went on: “And Italians aren’t as sneaky, rude, mean and lazy as we Moldovans are. They aren’t such knuckledragging knuckleheads. They even dress differently.  Their clothes are just like their country. Happy and festive! The people are beautiful. They all sing Italy’s praises, because that’s what to sing about. Not like Moldova, which asks you for love, but is less of a motherland then a step-motherland!”

*Michelle Johnson. (March 18, 2014) A conversation with Vladimir Lorchenkov. World Literature Today. 
Retrieved from
Posted by: koolwine | March 1, 2015

Vatican City: The Church of Mercy

The Church of Mercy by Pope FrancisRead highlights from speeches given by Pope Francis in his first year as leader of the Catholic Church.

Country Focus: Vatican City

The Church of Mercy: A Vision for the Church
By Pope Francis (Jorge Mario Bergoglio)
Foreword by Vincent Cardinal Nichols
Preface by Guiliano Vigini
First published in English by Danton, Longman and Todd, Ltd, 2014.
My edition: Loyola Press, 2014
150 pgs.

Genre: Nonfiction

About the author: Pope Francis’s given name is Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Upon becoming Pope, he selected Saint Francis of Assisi as his namesake. A native of Argentina, he is the first Pope to come out of the Americas. Two years into his papacy, Pope Francis is best known for his compassion for the poor.  

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Pulled from 39 of the newly elected Pope’s homilies and addresses, these selections present an encapsulated look at Pope Francis’s “vision” for the Catholic Church. Like the Dalai Lama, Pope Francis radiates an appeal that stretches beyond his religious followers. One need not be Catholic to be inspired by his plea for unity among all peoples and his insistence that every human being deserves to be treated with dignity. Pope Francis repeatedly condemns the “throwaway culture” of globalization, which values profit over people. Amen to that.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis


Dear friends, it is certainly necessary to give bread to the hungry—this is an act of justice. But there is also a deeper hunger, the hunger for a happiness that only God can satisfy, the hunger for dignity. There is neither real promotion of the common good nor real human development when there is ignorance of the fundamental pillars that govern a nation, its nonmaterial goods: life, which is a gift from God, a value always to be protected and promoted; the family, the foundation of coexistence and a remedy against social fragmentation; integral education, which cannot be reduced to the mere transmission of information for purposes of generating profit; health, which must seek the integral well-being of the person, including the spiritual dimension, essential for human balance and healthy coexistence; security, in the conviction that violence can be overcome only by the changing of human hearts.

Posted by: koolwine | February 8, 2015

Return Trip: Japan (via Austria)

Sometimes one book per country isn’t enough. Now that I’m on the lookout for international authors, their books jump out at me and I can’t refuse them even if I’ve already covered their territory. I’ve sneaked these books in between my “official” reading. I thought I’d share them with you.

I Called Him Necktie • Ich nannte ihn Krawatte

by Milena Michiko Flašar • Translated by Sheila Dickie
Originally published in German in 2012 by Verlag Klaus Wagenbach
My edition: New Vessel Press, 2014 • 128 pgs
Genre: Fiction

I Called Him Necktie by Milena Michiko Flasar
Summary: Two lost souls—a young man who ventures out of his bedroom for the first time in two years, and a middle-aged man who fakes going to work because he can’t bear to tell his wife he’s been fired—gather enough courage from their budding friendship to re-enter their lives.

About the author: Flašar’s mother is Japanese and her father is Austrian. She lives and writes in Vienna.

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A touching story, elegantly told.


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