Country Focus: Armenia
Passage to Ararat
By Michael J. Arlen
Introduction by Clark Blaise
Originally published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1975
My edition published by Ruminator Books, 2002.
About the author: Before winning the National Book Award in 1976 for Passage to Ararat, Arlen was nominated for the same prize in 1970 for the memoir Exiles. A television critic for The New Yorker, he also published several books on the television industry.
Armenia claimed Christianity as its official religion way back in 301, earning it the distinction of being the world’s first Christian nation. Armenia’s Muslim neighbors never took a shine to their religious preference and have taken their displeasure out on the Armenians for centuries. The worst of these persecutions occurred in 1915, when the Ottoman Turks killed an estimated 1.5 million Armenians. Although the Turks dispute it, many historians describe this mass bloodshed as one of the first genocides of the modern world.
The author’s father escaped this grim fate by emigrating to England. He then changed his name and effectively renounced his Armenian heritage. This walling off of his past caused his son Michael to disassociate from Armenians and even to view Armenians with disdain for so often playing the victim. It wasn’t until after his father had died and he was in his early forties that Michael felt compelled to explore his Armenian-ness. A chance invitation to speak to an Armenian group about writing ultimately led Michael and his wife to travel to Armenia (then the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic). There, he faced his complicated feelings toward his father and the challenge of overcoming ingrained cultural stereotypes.
Passage to Ararat is both a historical look at Armenia and an emotional journey of self-discovery. Slow and reflective, its value for me came from learning, first of all, how badly a person can be wounded both by history and stereotypes and second of all, how that wounded person might eventually turn their cultural self-loathing into cultural pride.
Wily Armenians! Rug merchants! Traders! What in hell did those things matter, I thought, trying to be more rational about it. But something had been let loose inside me—a shame, an anger. And I knew suddenly how it mattered. It mattered because it was supposed to matter. It mattered because I had said that it couldn’t, mustn’t matter. It mattered because my father had said that none of it existed.
We were walking with Sarkis through a museum, a museum of Armenian art objects: ancient pots and urns, crude wooden chariots and spears. I could hardly see any of the exhibits, let alone think about them or listen to Sarkis’s incessant commentary, for I was still consumed by rage. I remember staring dumbly at an enormous orange-colored wine jar, peering at it studiously, and thinking, My secret is that I have always hated being an Armenian. I haven’t ignored it or been shy about it—I have hated it. Because I was given the values of Europeans and they despised the Armenians. And I have hated my father not, as I have thought for all these years, for being too strong a figure or too authoritarian but because he, so to speak, stepped back and gave me to the Europeans.
Country Focus: Niger
Riding the Demon: On the Road in West Africa
By Peter Chilson
Published by University of Georgia Press, 1999.
About the author: Chilson was a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger from 1985 to 1987. He returned in 1992 as a journalist to gather information for a book that would become Riding the Demon. He continues to visit and write about West Africa, and in 2013 published the e-book We Never Knew Exactly Where: Dispatches From the Lost Country of Mali.
Riding the Demon is an entertaining and eye-opening look at the perilous nature of road travel in Niger.
Bush taxis were the primary mode of motorized transportation in Niger during the 1990s. Rides were cheap and egalitarian but dangerous. Consider this: the bush taxi was usually a vehicle so decrepit that its parts were often tied into place with rope and/or patched with pieces of old Coke cans; impure, black market fuel was often packed in among baggage, ready to explode in case of an accident; drivers routinely tore along at speeds over 85 mph, regardless of road condition, weather, or likelihood of collision with human, beast or object; soldiers searched and detained travelers at numerous checkpoints; breakdowns were inevitable; and departure and arrival times depended solely on good fortune. This seat-of-your-pants method of travel both exhilarated and terrified author Peter Chilson. Chilson spent seven months in a 1978 Peugeot 504 driven by Issoufou Garba on Niger’s Route 1, which stretches east from Mali and west to Lake Chad. Issoufou, a middle-aged devout Muslim with no formal education, two wives, ten children and a fleet of three bush taxis, faced all of the trials of his line of work with a patience and self-possession admired by his American passenger.
Not only does he recount his adventures on the road with Issoufou, but Chilson also entertainingly relates the history and culture of all things related to the Nigerien road system and automobile travel. Chilson’s unique look into a country neglected by most writers deserves a larger readership.
Once in a while a crash illuminates the night in the bush, to the pleasure of the gods, when some poor driver hits a lightless vehicle, releasing the demons in the gasoline barrels. Charred remains line the road shoulder for the thirty-two miles from Takiéta east to the old provincial capital and market city of Zinder. Fresh flames of wrecks sometimes startle the dark night on Route 1, flashing bright stains on the air. Villagers comb the the wrecks for salvageable spare parts to sell—a hubcap, a fuel filter—the moment the metal cools.
Country Focus: Kazakhstan (Qazaqstan in Kazakh)
Above the Clouds: The Diaries of a High-Altitude Mountaineer
By Anatoli Boukreev
Translated by Natalia Lagovskaya and Barbara Poston
Collected and edited by Linda Wylie
Foreward by Galen Rowell
Published by St. Martin’s Griffin, 2001
About the author: Boukreev perished in an avalanche on Annapurna in 1997. At Annapurna’s basecamp lies a memorial bearing his words: “Mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion.”
Anatoli Boukreev made 18 ascents over 8,000 meters, ten of those without the use of supplemental oxygen. His climbs included speed ascents, solo ascents and winter ascents. His strength and endurance were so incredible that in 1997 he climbed four 8,000 meter peaks (Gasherbrum II, Broad Peak, Mount Everest and Lhotse) in 80 days. Boukreev may be familiar to some readers; he served as a guide on Scott Fischer’s ill-fated Mountain Madness expedition to Mount Everest in May 1996. A blizzard killed eight climbers, including Fischer. In his bestselling novel Into Thin Air, John Krakauer found fault with Boukreev’s actions during the crisis. His criticisms greatly disturbed Boukreev and spurred him to write his own account of events called The Climb.
Friends Lynda Wylie and world-renowned photographer Galen Rowell contributed helpful introductions to Above the Clouds, providing context for readers unfamiliar with Boukreev. Although his journal entries, which span the years 1989-1997, include descriptions of his various climbs, Boukreev’s writing not only relays the details of these athletic feats, but also reveals a sensitive heart. One of his greatest frustrations and sorrows was that the breakup of the Soviet Union led to a failure in support and funding for alpine schools and alpinists. However, nothing could stop him from climbing the world’s highest peaks: not finances, not health concerns, not language barriers. Boukreev believed that the mountains brought out the best in him, and that through them, he could recognize his true potential as a human being. An inspiring read.
Now, recalling Kachenjunga’s storehouses of snow makes my heart ache like memories of a love that has been lost. Six years, not six months, will pass and I know that I will feel this same way. She possessed a purity and grandeur that are incomparable. Her summits provide reasons that make the human struggle for physical and spiritual perfection meaningful, motivators that are more profound than vain aspirations for fame or wealth. Perhaps this sounds idealistic, but my experiences on Kachenjunga make these reasons seem shallow and vulgar.
Confronted with the petty concerns of my ordinary life, I feel empty, as if I am wasting a priceless gift…the brief time that is allotted to each human for creativity. Days pass and my work does not generate the strength and eagerness to live, which memories of the mountain inspire in me. Perhaps this melancholy will pass when there is another magnificent peak. In truth I do not know. Can this longing and restlessness be the price that mortals pay for daring to trespass in the houses of the Gods…the price you pay for disturbing the peace of God?
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. April 5, 2016 is the deadline for requesting a book from Round 14.
Here’s the current round of books up for grabs:
Country Focus: Madagascar
Antipode: Seasons with the Extraordinary Wildlife and Culture of Madagascar
By Heather E. Heying
Published by St. Martin’s Press, 2002.
About the author: Heying is a zoology professor at Evergreen State College in Washington. Antipode is her only non-academic publication.
Madagascar, the world’s fourth largest island, is located off the southeastern coast of Africa. Ninety percent of its animal and plant species are endemic, making it a zoologist’s wonderland. Intrigued with the idea that Madagascar is her antipode—a place located diametrically opposite of her then home of Santa Cruz, California—field biologist Heather Heying travels to the country’s rainforest to study Mantella laevigata, a type of poison frog that has never before been profiled. She watches these little amphibians for hours at a time to find out how they mate, reproduce and survive.
Unearthing a substantial frog population is Heying’s first, but far from only, concern. 1990s Madagascar is more or less jury-rigged together. The only sure things are glacially paced bureaucracy, unreliable transportation, unending dampness and a monotonous diet of rice. Basics like healthcare and electricity are often not available when she needs them. A lemur bite, the theft of all her money, and a falling tree all threaten her ability to stay and see her research through.
This is the stuff of an epic sufferfest. Luckily for frog aficionados, Heying is not easily daunted. Unluckily for readers, Heying’s prose never rises above adequate. One of the few English language travelogues on Madagascar, Antipode is intriguing, but ultimately unsatisfying.
Buying rice is the central activity of provisioning yourself in Madagascar. It would be an absurd understatement to suggest that rice is the staple of the Malagasy diet. The Malagasy are intensely proud of how much rice they eat. Every meal that a Malagasy eats consists primarily of a plate piled high with slightly sticky rice. The market in Maroantsetra is dominated by the rice vendors at rickety tables, neatly lined up, with umbrellas overhead.There are so many rice vendors, it is difficult to make a choice. The slight variations in price mask vast differences in quality, if you believe the experts, which is to say, every Malagasy who has eaten the many subtly variant forms of white rice. Questions from the vazaha are gross, tactless, uneducated. “Is there any brown rice?” “How can you tell the difference among the rices?” “Does it really matter?” Brown rice, with the husk still on, increasingly the rice of choice among gourmands in the First World, is low-class, not pure, somehow sullied. If you have to ask about the differences among rices, you are perhaps not fit for the job of choosing your own rice. And finally, of course it matters, for rice is central; if one does no care about rice, what is there left to concern oneself with?
Country Focus: Dominica
By Marie-Elena John
Published by Amistad, 2006.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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