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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

Posted by: koolwine | August 23, 2015

Mongolia: The Blue Sky

The Blue Sky by Galsan TschinagA young member of the nomadic Tuvan tribe grapples with personal tragedy and the changes wrought by communism.

Country Focus: Mongolia (Mongol Uls in Khalkha Mongol)

The Blue Sky
By Galsan Tschinag
Translated by Katharina Rout
Originally published in Germany by Verlag, Frankfurt am Main in 1994.
My edition: Milkweed Editions, 2006
209 pgs

Genre: Memoir

About the author: Tschinag is a Tuvan chieftain who attended college in Germany. The Blue Sky is part one of his three-part autobiography.

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Galsan Tschinag

Galsan Tschinag

The Blue Sky is notable for granting the reader an inside look at the culture of the Tuvans, a tribe of nomadic sheepherders who live high in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia.


The days of winter, which seemed so short to the adults, seemed long, infinitely long to me. I was not to play but rather to take the flock to its pasture, and I was told to watch the wind, the sun, and the grass, to watch how the animals reacted to them, and to watch how each of the animals behaved. It was also important to be on my guard against eagles and wolves. Should any appear, I was told not to be afraid and to grab quickly my shepherd’s crook, which I carried over my shoulder like a gun; I was to aim it at them, produce a bang, and scream loudly.

Posted by: koolwine | August 16, 2015

Return Trip: France (via Germany)

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.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer • Das Parfum

by Patrick Süskind • Translated from German by John E. Woods
Originally published in Switzerland by Diogenes Verlag, 1985
My edition: Vintage International, 2001 • 255 pgs

perfume by patrick suskind
Summary: This utterly original story with a knockout ending features an unforgettable villain: a despised, scentless orphan gifted with a sense of smell more pronounced than a bloodhound’s.
Genre: Fiction
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At age six he had completely grasped his surroundings olfactorily. There was not an object in Madame Gaillard’s house, no place along the northern reaches of the rue de Charonne, no person, no stone, tree, bush, or picket fence, no spot be it ever so small, that he did not know by smell, could not recognize again by holding its uniqueness firmly in his memory. He had gathered tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of specific smells and kept them so clearly, so randomly, at his disposal, that he could not only recall them when he smelled them again, but could also actually smell them simply upon recollection. And what was more, he even knew how by sheer imagination to arrange new combinations of them, to the point where he created odors that did not exist in the real world.

Posted by: koolwine | August 9, 2015

Tunisia: Behind Closed Doors

behind closed doorsThree upper class Muslim women tell folktales that mirror their own experiences and perspectives.

Country Focus: Tunisia (Tunis in Arabic)

Behind Closed Doors: Women’s Oral Narratives in Tunis
By Monia Hejaiej
Forward by Laura Rice
Originally published in Great Britain by Quartet Books Limited, 1996
My edition: Rutgers University Press, 1996 
369 pgs

Genre: Folktales

About the author: Hejaiej is a literature professor at the University of Tunis.

World Lit Up Rating:
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Don’t be put off by the scholarly-sounding subtitle as I almost was. Behind Closed Doors opens up to reveal a wealth of traditional folklore and a fascinating look at the world of the tale tellers. Professor Monia Hejaiej has recorded 47 stories as told by three “Beldi” women – Ghaya, Sa ‘diyya and Kheira – in 1989 and 1990. With roots going back centuries, the Beldi are the elite of Tunisian society.  These particular women were the master storytellers of their generation (the women were ages 63, 55 and 62 respectively), but societal norms precluded them from telling their tales outside the home. Tale-telling was typically saved for female gatherings and special occasions.

A long but fascinating introduction takes up the first third of the book. Hejaiej does an excellent job setting up context for the tales by explaining Beldi life and, most importantly, the social roles of Beldi men and women. Although I was tempted to skip the intro and jump right into the stories, it turned out to be essential to understanding the viewpoints of the tales’ female protagonists.

The stories themselves are highly enjoyable, and include elements that are familiar to anyone who has read Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Hans Christian Andersen and the like. Sa ‘diyya begins hers with “Once upon a time,” and all three women often end with an amusing spin on the typical European story ending: “And they lived happily and procreated until death did them part.” Events often happen in threes, magical elements abound, and cleverness often subverts trouble.

It’s a shame that these stories have traditionally had such a limited audience. Thanks to Hejaiej for throwing the doors open.

Quote from “The Clever Peasant Girl” as told by Kheira:

The queen arrived at her father’s saniya, with the king hidden in her luggage. As she entered the tent, she unlocked the case and laid the king on the divan, stretching out next to him until the morning. The cool morning breeze revived the king, who woke to the lowing of the cows and the chirping of the birds. ‘Am I dreaming?’ he thought. He turned and found his wife beside him. ‘Where am I?’ She replied: ‘You’re with me, safe and sound.’ He asked: ‘What brought me here?’ She replied: ‘You told me to leave and take with me whatever I valued most. I thought gold and silk are earthly possessions. What else do I have dearer than you? So I brought you with me.’ He replied delightedly, ‘Come back with me.’ The carriage brought them back to the palace and from that day on, the queen sat in court with him.


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