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.

World Lit Up Rating:
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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.

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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.

Posted by: koolwine | August 1, 2015

Return Trip: Macedonia

Back in April I posted “Freud’s Sister.” The book was written by a Macedonian but since it was set in Austria, I didn’t get a sense of the country at all. In the post, I noted that I couldn’t find any pieces of contemporary literature set in Macedonia. Not long after, I received an email from Christina E. Kramer, the translator of “Freud’s Sister”. She told me that her translations included the first two volumes of Luan Starova’s Balkan saga, in which the land that is now known as Macedonia figures prominently. She graciously mailed me a copy of each. They turned out to be exactly what I was hoping for – windows into Macedonia.

My Father’s Books 

by Luan Starova • Translated by Christina E. Kramer
Originally published in Macedonia as Tatkovite knigi, 1992
University of Wisconsin Press, 2012 • 197 pgs

my fathers books by luan starova
Summary:  The question “What is your nationality?” seems like a no-brainer. But what if your country has changed borders or names, or been politically dismantled? What if any or all of these changes happened several times during your lifetime? Luan Starova’s father experienced the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. He moved his family from place to place as the Balkan region splintered into countries with ever-shifting boundaries. The only constant in the senior Starova’s life was his personal library. He delved into it daily to make sense of the region’s unrelenting turmoil. In the brief but telling reminiscences that make up My Father’s Books, Luan Starova pays homage to his father, and shares the vital role that literature played in his family.

Genre: Memoir
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In those rare moments when, bent over his opened books, he considered his fate, seeking solutions to the Balkan history of his family, in those moments when he thought he was fully prepared to begin writing the history of the Balkans through the decline of three empires (Ottoman, Fascist, and Stalinist) with which the life of his family had collided, my father began to ask himself which was his fatherland: the fatherland of his ancestors or the fatherland of his descendants?

He was deeply convinced, and no one and nothing could dissuade him from this belief, that his library remained his ultimate fatherland. It was filled with books in various languages, in various scripts, from various eras. Here, too, was the great globe he rotated when he was unable to confirm his true homeland.


The Time of the Goats 

by Luan Starova • Translated by Christina E. Kramer
Originally published in Macedonia as Vremeto na kozite, 1993
University of Wisconsin Press, 2012 • 154 pgs

the time of the goats by luan starova
Summary:  In a complete style change from My Father’s Books, Starova straightforwardly tells a story from his youth in 1940s Yugoslavia (now Macedonia). Starova’s family and many others in the city of Skopje are starving, but they are about to fall into some luck. Local goatherds have been forced out of their mountain homes by the Communist government and sent into the city to work in factories. The officials didn’t dream that the goatherds would bring their flocks with them. The cheese and milk that the goats produce save the populace from starvation, but the central government demands a full-scale slaughter of the goats. Starova’s father and a charismatic goatherd named Changa attempt to save the animals from the lunacy of communism.

Genre: Memoir

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It was not easy for my father to make sense of this time of the goats, to enter it and submit to it. He thought that the banal question—whether to ban goats in the first years of Communism—had become a true test, a first obstacle on which Communism had stumbled, and from that moment it began its collapse due to its powerlessness to engage for long with the reality of the way life was truly lived…

Unlike my father, Mother did not contemplate the weight of history theoretically. For my mother, history was us—her hungry children with no goats, and all the well-fed children in those families with goats.

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.

World Lit Up Rating:
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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.

World Lit Up Rating:
(On a scale of 1-5, with 1 book = turned off and 5 books = lit up)

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!

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