Posted by: koolwine | April 22, 2018

The Gambia: One Plastic Bag

As more and more plastic bags littered the streets of her village and endangered her community’s goat herds, Isatou Ceesay gathered a group of friends together to pick up the refuse and turn it into plastic strands that they then used to weave beautiful purses.

Country Focus: The Gambia

One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of The Gambia
By Miranda Paul
Illustrations by Elizabeth Zunon
Published by Millbrook Press, 2015.
31 pgs.

Genre: Picture book

About the author:  Paul was inspired to write One Plastic Bag while she was a freelance journalist in The Gambia. She has written several other children’s picture books, including Water Is Water, which School Library Journal named as one of the best books of 2015.

Seventeen years after she started recycling, Isatou Ceesay‘s idea has evolved into the nonprofit Women Initiative the Gambia, with over 40 groups and 2000 members. Her project not only benefits  the environment, but has also enabled thousands of women to earn money and better the lives of their families. Her biggest victory came in 2015, when Gambia banned the use and importation of plastic bags.

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Isatou Ceesay


Naka ligey be?” asks Grandmother. “How is the work?”

Ndanka, ndanka,” answers Isatou. “Slow. Some people in the village laugh at us. Others call us ‘dirty.’ But I believe what we are doing is good.”

The women crochet by candlelight, away from those who mock them…

Posted by: koolwine | April 12, 2018

Lesotho: Sometimes There Is a Void

In this somewhat amusing but overly long memoir, Zakes Mda recalls his teenage years as an exile in Lesotho (his family fled South Africa after the police targeted his father for speaking out against the apartheid regime), his growing involvement with various anti-apartheid political parties and his determination to fight the system with words rather than weapons, his success as a playwright, novelist and social critic, and, last but not least, his many tempestuous love affairs.      

Country Focus: Lesotho (formerly Basutoland)

Sometimes There Is a Void: Memoirs of an Outsider
By Zakes Mda
Originally published: Penguin Books, South Africa, 2011
My edition: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2012
561 pgs.

Genre: Memoir

About the author:  One of South Africa’s most celebrated authors, Mda won awards for We Shall Sing for the Fatherland, The Hill, Ways of Dying, The Heart of Redness, The Madonna of Excelsior, and Little Suns. He began teaching creative writing at Ohio University in 2002.

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Zakes Mda


Lesotho was of strategic importance in that region because it was completely surrounded by apartheid South Africa. That was one of its claims to fame: the only country in the world to be completely surrounded by another country. The second claim to fame was the fact that it is a very mountainous country, hence the sobriquet the Kingdom in the Sky, and also the Switzerland of Africa. Brochures never forget to remind prospective tourists that the kingdom has the highest low point of any country in the world. Its position in relation to South Africa was of great concern to the Afrikaners because it was harboring ‘terrorists’, namely me, my father and hundreds of other South African refugees from the Pan Africanist Congress, the African National Congress, and even the Trotskyites of the Non-European Unity movement.

Posted by: koolwine | March 10, 2018

Cyprus: Bitter Lemons

Lawrence Durrell, a British ex-patriot looking for an idyllic island hideaway, finds himself in the midst of political upheaval. It’s the mid-1950s, and Greece is goading Cyprus’s Greek majority into rising up against its British colonizers in a bid for independence. Durrell takes a job as Press Adviser for the colonial government and gets an inside look at how a peaceful, sleepy community edges into violent rebellion.

Country Focus: Cyprus

Bitter Lemons
By Lawrence Durrell
Originally published by Faber & Faber Limited, London, 1957
My edition:  Axios Press, 2009.
271 pgs.

Genre: Memoir

About the author:  Best known for his series The Alexandria Quartet, which made it onto the Modern Library’s list of “100 Best English-Language Novels of the 20th Century,” Lawrence Durrell gathered story ideas from his world travels. His younger brother, Gerald Durrell, also became a famous author.

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Lawrence Durrell


The whole street was ankle-deep in bottles. Across the road, on the periphery of the battlefield, the British Institute remained obstinately open, its director quietly watching from a balcony. From time to time a breathless student who had tired of throwing bottles or sprained an arm would slip into the library for a quiet spell of study as if nothing in the world were amiss. The crowds moved roaring up and down the streets, screaming for liberty like maddened bulls. An English spinster mounted rather precariously on a bicycle, however, rode straight through them; they parted, cheering, and when she dropped a parcel, a dozen members of Epsilon Alpha dived for the honor of picking it up and restoring it to her. “I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” said a newspaper correspondent, running for his life along the moat, pursued by the Girls’ Sixth. There were brilliant scenes rich in all the unrehearsed comedy of Latin life; as when the police experimenting with the new and exciting weapon they had been given-the gas shell-filled their own headquarters with tear-gas and had to evacuate it until the wind changed. “They don’t mean any harm,” said a Greek grocer dodging adroitly as a brickbat whizzed past him into a shop window, “It is just the people expressing themselves.” Then getting down under a counter, he added, “They are very polite people really, but they want self-determination.”

Posted by: koolwine | February 18, 2018

Tuvalu: The Fragile Edge

In Part II of The Fragile Edge, Whitty travels to Funafuti, an atoll belonging to the remote South Pacific nation of Tuvalu, a group of nine small atolls known primarily for their precarious lack of elevation – a mere twelve feet. Her curiosity has taken her there: how do Tuvaluans feel about and plan for the likely total inundation of their islands?

Country Focus: Tuvalu (previously the New Hebrides)

The Fragile Edge: Diving and Other Adventures in the South Pacific
By Julia Whitty
Published by Houghton Mifflin, 2007.
292 pgs.

Genre: Travelogue

About the author:  Before becoming an award-winning fiction and nonfiction writer, Whitty was a documentary filmmaker with over 70 underwater and nature films under her belt.

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Julia Whitty


There is little or no television here, only a few hours of radio a day, and most of these [Tuvaluans] have never been further than their home islands—although some have traveled to Fiji or New Zealand, and a few, working in the merchant marine, have been all over the world. But most don’t have much to compare their country to. When I mention a report issued by the U.S. State Department that describes an apparent human-rights paradise in Tuvalu, a world devoid of killings, disappearances, torture, and refugees, as well as a nation graced with universal literacy and no violent crime (the only jail is currently empty), the Funafutians smile and nod politely.

But whereas I had expected to meet a nation of people eager for me to broadcast their plight to the world, instead I am finding citizens wary of the topic of sea levels. To a person, they seem quietly disappointed that I am not a tourist. Perhaps they are afraid that too much talk of flooded islands will squash any hopes of tourism ever establishing here.

Posted by: koolwine | December 27, 2017

Vanuatu: Tales from the Torrid Zone

In this scattershot travelogue, British journalist Alexander Frater gushes anecdotes about tropical locales like lava gushes from a volcano. Many of these tales concern Vanuatu, a group of islands in the South Pacific that boast the birthplace of bungee jumping; inspiration for James Michener’s Bali Ha’i; a giant World War II U.S. military dump; and a mysterious lake rumored to transmit faraway images.    

Country Focus: Vanuatu (previously the New Hebrides)

Tales from the Torrid Zone: Travels in the Deep Tropics
By Alexander Frater
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.
384 pgs.

Genre: Travelogue

About the author:  Frater’s connection to Vanuatu began with his grandfather Maurice, who served as a missionary on the island of Paama. Frater was born on the island of Iririki, where his father opened a hospital and his mother built two schools. He’s made several television documentaries and written several other books, the most recent being The Balloon Factory: The Story Of The Men Who Built Britain’s First Flying Machines.

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Alexander Frater


Mostly, [Maurice, Frater’s grandfather] just told stories – a favorite being about the night seven new volcanoes erupted on Ambrym. From Paama, a few miles away, Maurice witnessed “a display of fireworks such as is given to few mortals to behold.” (One appeared in the grounds of the mission hospital run by his friend Dr. Bowie; as Bowie ran for his life “fragments of his house and hospital” roared skywards in a column of compressed steam that rose twenty thousand feet in less than a minute.) Maurice summoned Mr. Roxburgh and Herr Grube, local traders who owned cargo launches, then, boarding his own flimsy whaler, led Paama’s mercy mission off through choppy seas.

Approaching Ambrym’s exploding coast, blizzards of hot ash and cinders engulfed them. Moving through a slurry of dead fish and steaming pumice, they saw fiery rock bombs and fragments of Pele’s hair (spun glass) while lava flows tossed trees in the air – visible in the light of the molten magma surging along beneath. Lava entering the sea made it boil. Choking on sulfurous smoke while steering for a beach crammed with refugees, they had to ride scalding tidal waves – a mile offshore an eighth volcano was rising.

Posted by: koolwine | December 9, 2017

Saint Kitts and Nevis: A State of Independence

After twenty years in England, Bertram Francis returns home to an unnamed Caribbean island on the verge of the its independence from Great Britain. It’s not easy to slip back into his old life. His family, friends, and the island itself have changed in ways that make it difficult for him to feel at home. 

Country Focus: Saint Kitts and Nevis

A State of Independence
By Caryl Phillips
Published by Collier Books, 1986.
158 pgs.

Genre: Fiction

About the author: Born in St. Kitts and raised in England, Phillips has authored many award-winning novels, including A Distant Shore and Dancing in the Dark. He currently teaches English at Yale.

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Caryl Phillips

‘England is where you belong now. Things have changed too much for you to have any chance of fitting back, so why you don’t return to the place where you know how the things are? You coming on here like a fool, just dropping by Government House and so on.’

Bertram looked at him, but still he said nothing.

‘You English West Indians should just come back here to retire and sit in the sun. Don’t waste your time trying to get into the fabric of the society for you’re made of the wrong material for the modern Caribbean. You all do think too fast and too crazy, like we should welcome you back as lost brothers. Well, you may be brothers alright, but you lost for true for you let the Englishman fuck up your heads.’





Posted by: koolwine | October 22, 2017

Ecuador: The Queen of Water

When she is only seven years old, María Virginia Farinago’s destitute parents send her away to be a servant for a wealthy mestizo family. Maria is Quichua, an ethnicity that the ruling mestizos have long treated as an inferior race. She dreams of escape from her abusive employer, but the longer she stays with the mestizos, the more returning to a life of poverty becomes unthinkable. Now that she’s trapped between two worlds, how can she forge a new life for herself?

Country Focus: Ecuador

The Queen of Water
By Laura Resau and María Virginia Farinago
Published by Delacorte Press, 2011.
352 pgs.

Genre: Novel based on a true story

About the author: Laura Resau has written eight books for children and young adults that draw on her experiences as a traveler and ESL teacher in Mexico, Ecuador, France, and Guatemala. She met María Virginia Farinago, an indigenous Quichua woman, when she was teaching at a community college in Ecuador. The two women decided to collaborate on writing Farinago’s incredible history, a project which became The Queen of Water. Farinago went on to run successful Andean arts business. She has since earned a masters degree in psychology, and is now a practicing psychologist.

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Maria Virginia Farinago and Laura Resau


I think of the elementary school diploma the Doctorita promised. How can I throw that away? And what if my parents don’t even want me back? Or what if they do, and I never see Jaimito and Andrecito and Niño Carlitos again? What if my parents force me to live in their dirty house without rice or meat or books or a TV? What if Papito still beats my mother? What if he tries to beat me? He’s much stronger than the Doctorita. I look at the scars on my legs from when Papito whipped me as I dangled from the rafters. The scars have faded a little, but I doubt they’ll ever disappear.

I take one last look at the phone booth through the window of Don Luciano’s store. My nose isn’t throbbing as much now, and the swelling will probably go down in a few days, and the welts from the hangers will fade in a week – a small price to pay for a diploma and a house full of books and weekly MacGyver access. I fold the worn paper with Matilde’s phone number on it, turn away from the shop and trudge home.

A scene flashes in my head: MacGyver telling the slaves, “Go, you’re free!” and the slaves just standing and staring. I understand why. Fear feels familiar. And freedom feels terrifying.

Posted by: koolwine | September 24, 2017

Free Books! (Round 17)

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 week after posting date. October 1, 2017 is the deadline for requesting a book from Round 17.

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

Posted by: koolwine | September 16, 2017

Grenada: Angel

Written almost entirely in the vernacular, Angel is the story of an ordinary Grenadian family whose members are drawn into the political intrigue of the Grenada Revolution.         

Country Focus: Grenada

By Merle Collins
Published by Seal Press, 1987.
294 pgs.

Genre: Fiction

About the author: Collins actively supported Maurice Bishop and the New Jewel Movement’s revolution in Grenada. Currently an English professor at the University of Maryland, Collins has written three volumes of poetry, two collections of short stories, and a second novel, The Color of Forgetting.

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Merle Collins


‘Mammie, lissen. Is not covetous I covetous. The lan couldn’t be mine because I too black for one, an is white people that own lan because is them that did have slave in this country. If I was high brown I might ah have white backgroun dat leave lan give me or I might ah be able to get big job, but it din work out so. People like you an me so, the harder we work in people kitchen and in people lan, the more we kill weself out and bring riches, is the poorer we get while we sweat goin in other people pocket.’

Posted by: koolwine | August 20, 2017

Chad: A Teenager in the Chad Civil War

To avoid being killed during Chad’s civil war, fourteen-year-old Ésaïe Toïngar leaves his village to join a group of rebel soldiers. He’d much rather be continuing his schoolwork, and worries constantly about possibility of being forced to kill somebody.

Country Focus: Chad

A Teenager in the Chad Civil War: A Memoir of Survival, 1982-1986
By Ésaïe Toïngar
Published by McFarland & Company, 2006.
224 pgs.

Genre: Memoir

About the author:  Toïngar entered the United States in 1999 as a refugee. He and his family currently live in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he is an electrical information engineer. The former child soldier has founded a nonprofit group, Wake Up for Your Rights!, whose mission is to promote peace and justice in Africa.

Esaie Toingar


A few days later, I was selected for a group that would go on patrol. I was sad to go and fight against the innocents who were hiding in the bush to protect themselves or had concealed themselves as CODOs fighting for a just cause. For the sake of our innocent people who were being killed, I had asked God not to allow me to kill. I remembered that during our time with the Green-CODOs in the maquis, we had learned an important military rule: the authority that gives soldiers the order to kill someone or to do something is responsible for the consequences of the soldiers’ actions. If I killed someone, therefore, it was not really I but the officer who gave the order who did the killing. On the other hand, my religious conviction did not allow me to kill someone, because it was said in the commandments of Moses, “you shall not kill.” So I could not rely on the military rule for spiritual justification.

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