Posted by: koolwine | April 30, 2017

Benin: Spirit Rising

Angélique Kidjo’s inspiring memoir chronicles her rise from child singer to global superstar and activist.

Country Focus: Benin

Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music
By Angélique Kidjo with Rachel Wenrick
Forward by Desmond Tutu
Introduction by Alicia Keys
Published by Harper Design, 2014.
255 pgs.

Genre: Memoir

About the author:  Kidjo is a three-time Grammy Award-winning musician who passionately believes in the unifying power of music. “Listening to music, the color of a person disappears, language disappears. Even enemies listen to the same music.” Kidjo has been a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador since 2002. In 2007, she founded the Batonga Foundation to promote and provide secondary and higher education for African girls.

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Angelique Kidjo


That day, when I learned of apartheid, I wrote “Azan Nan Kpé,” which means that the day will come when there won’t be any oppression or oppressed anymore. The first version of that song was very, very violent. My father said to me, “Not in my house. No violence in my house. No hatred in my house. Music has nothing to do with hatred. I understand your frustration and I understand your anger, but you’re going to revise your copy. You can’t use your songs to add fuel to the fire. Music is supposed to bring people together and fight for peace, because it is art and beauty, not just politics.” To this day, I always keep this in mind when I write a song.

Posted by: koolwine | April 11, 2017

Azerbaijan: The Orphan Sky

Leila is poised to win a national piano competition and the heart of a handsome communist leader, but an encounter with a mysterious and radical young man changes the course of her life forever.

Country Focus: Azerbaijan (Azarbaycan in Azeri)

The Orphan Sky
By Ella Leya
Published by Sourcebooks Landmark, 2015.
356 pgs.

Genre: Fiction

About the author:  Leya, like her protagonist Leila, was born and raised in Soviet Azerbaijan. She emigrated to the U.S. in 1990 and makes her living as a singer-songwriter. The Orphan Sky is her first and only novel.

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Ella Leya


Why did my family live in such luxury? Why was my papa allowed to acquire and display his riches instead of using them for the common good? Why did I myself preach the equality of our Communist society to the younger generation?

Because that was the normal way of life in Soviet Azerbaijan, something I never would have thought of questioning. There were the common citizens and there was Nomenklatura—the ruling class of Communist Party members, who held key positions in government, industry, and culture. To become a part of Nomenklatura was an ultimate ambition of every Soviet citizen.

I was born into it.


Posted by: koolwine | April 8, 2017

Swaziland: When Hoopoes Go to Heaven

Benedict is an unusually sensitive and caring ten-year-old whose family has recently moved to Swaziland.  When he’s not dreaming up new ways for his mother to build a clientele for her cake-baking business, he’s admiring birds and insects and worrying about the lives of the people around him. 

Country Focus: Swaziland (eSwatini in siSwati)

When Hoopoes Go to Heaven
By Gaile Parkin
Published by Corvus, 2012.
328 pgs.

Genre: Fiction

About the author:  Originally from Zambia, Parkin has lived and worked in many African countries, Swaziland among them. When Hoopoes Go to Heaven follows her first novel Baking Cakes in Kigali. Both books feature the character Angel Tungaraza, cake baker extraordinaire.

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Gaile Parkin


It was malaria. Probably not a new malaria: they said you only got it it down in the eastern part of Swaziland, though Benedict was sure he had seen the black-and-white spotted mosquitoes that gave it to you in their house on the hill. This was probably old malaria visiting him again, which could happen on account of it sometimes never fully leaving your blood.

Lying in his bed, with Mama and Titi taking turns to drape a fresh damp cloth over his hot forehead and trying one after the other to tempt him with food that he didn’t want to eat, he thought feverishly about what had happened.

First Nomsa. A girl.

Then Josephine. A girl.

Now malaria. Which you could only get from a female mosquito.

Girls? Uh-uh-uh.

It was days and days before he was well enough to get out of bed.

Posted by: koolwine | March 23, 2017

Free Books! (Round 16)

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 23, 2016 is the deadline for requesting a book from Round 16.

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

Posted by: koolwine | March 19, 2017

Oman: The Turtle of Oman

Aref is feeling apprehensive about moving from Oman to the U.S. To ease his anxiety, his beloved grandfather takes him to all of his favorite places and reminds him that he will find his way back home—just like Oman’s green sea turtles.

Country Focus: Oman

The Turtle of Oman: A Novel
By Naomi Shihab Nye
Illustrations by Betsy Peterschmidt
Published by Greenwillow Books, 2014.
299 pgs.

Genre: Young adult fiction

About the author:  Nye is an accomplished Arab-American poet with Palestinian roots. Both her poetry and her fiction seek to bridge the divide between cultures. The Turtle of Oman was preceded by Nye’s first young adult novel, Habibi.

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Naomi Shihab Nye


[Aref] stared out the window. Gazing left up the boulevard crowded with cars and buses, Aref could see the Hajar Mountains, which meant “Stone Mountains,” standing behind the low white buildings of the city. Everyone loved those brown mountains that loomed like a comforting wall. He slumped against the backseat and felt like crying.

To the right, palm trees bowed over the road. They swayed and shifted their drying palm skirts. The giant turquoise Arabian Sea had been there every day of his life. He had always known it. Oman was his only, number one, super-duper, authentic, absolutely personal place.

Aref knew how people moved, crossing a street, how they wrapped their scarves, how the call to prayer echoed across the city and made everyone feel peaceful and proud inside. He liked the way large white boulders were stacked beside the water. He even loved the clicking sounds of shoes and animal hooves in the marketplace, called the souk.

Posted by: koolwine | March 8, 2017

Guinea: The Dark Child

The Dark Child by Camara LayeCamara Laye recalls his childhood in French Guinea with fondness. Standout memories include his father’s otherworldly kinship with a snake, the highly ceremonial art of goldsmithing, and the author’s own ritual circumcision.   

Country Focus: Guinea (formerly French Guinea)

The Dark Child: The Autobiography of an African Boy
By Camara Laye (1928-1980)
Translated by James Kirkup and Ernest Jones
Introduction by Philippe Thoby-Marcelin, translated by Eva Thoby-Marcelin
Originally published in France as L’Enfant Noir, 1954.
My edition: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1994
188 pgs.

Genre: Memoir

About the author:  Laye was one of the first sub-Saharan African authors to be internationally recognized. He followed The Dark Child with three other books: The Radiance of the King, A Dream of Africa, and The Guardian of the Word.

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Camara Laye

Camara Laye


But I was hardly aware of the length of the road [to his uncle’s village], for all sorts of marvels lay along it.

I say “marvels,” for Kouroussa is actually a city and hasn’t any of those country sights which a city child always finds marvelous. As we walked along we were likely to dislodge a hare or a wild boar; birds flew away at our approach, with a great beating of wings; sometimes we would meet a crowd of monkeys. Every time something like this happened I felt a small thrill of excitement, for I was more startled than the game which had suddenly been alerted. Observing my pleasure, my uncle would throw a fistful of pebbles a long way ahead; or he would beat the tall grass with a dead branch, to dislodge birds and animals. I would imitate him, but never for very long. The afternoon sun beat fiercely on the savannah, and I would return to slip my hand into his. Once again we would go along quietly.

Posted by: koolwine | March 2, 2017

Qatar: The Girl Who Fell to Earth

The Girl Who Fell to Earth by Sophia Al-MariaSophia Al-Maria’s childhood is split between her mother’s home in the Pacific Northwest and her father’s home in Qatar. Somehow she must blend these radically different lifestyles together in order to secure her place in the world.

Country Focus: Qatar

The Girl Who Fell to Earth: A Memoir
By Sophia Al-Maria
Published by Harper, 2012.
271 pgs.

Genre: Memoir

About the author:  Al-Maria is a video artist whose works explore “Gulf Futurism, ” a term she coined to describe the rapid cultural and architectural transformation of the Persian Gulf.

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Sophia Al-Maria

Sophia Al-Maria


Falak squinted into the photo, trying to make out who they were. “That’s your bother Badr with the dog.” She pointed him out.

“How can you tell?” I asked. The boy was facing away from the camera, clothed in a brown winter thobe.

Falak shrugged as though it were obvious. “The shape of his head, the way he’s standing.”

I stared long at the little figure but gleaned no clues. It seemed the uncanny gift of recognition that was hardwired into everyone else’s brains had skipped me. Even as a child I remembered being confused by the veiled women all around me and felt a strange jealousy when still-crawling babies were able to pick their mothers out of a lineup of identically perfumed and identically veiled women. I thought that if by chance one generation and a half a world were removed from the equation, I might have been living one of the last of the ancient ways on earth.

Posted by: koolwine | January 16, 2017

Saint Lucia: The Prodigal

The Prodigal by Derek WalcottA poet wonders if his long periods of living and traveling in the world’s great cities have untethered him from his humble island home.

Country Focus: Saint Lucia

The Prodigal
By Derek Walcott
Published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2004.
105 pgs.

Genre: Poetry

About the author:  Walcott won the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature and many other honors for his poetry, plays and essays. The Saint Lucian’s most notable work is Omeros, a Caribbean retelling of Homer’s The Iliad featuring rival fishermen.

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Derek Walcott

Derek Walcott


Envy of statues; this is how it grew:
every day in Milan, en route to class,
I passed my rigid, immortal friend, the General,
on his morose green horse, still there on weekends.
The wars were over but he would not dismount.
Had he died, catapulted in some charge
in some euphonious battle? The bronze charger
was lathered, streaked with sweat, in the summer sun.
We had no such memorials on the island.
Our only cavalry were the charging waves,
pluming with spume, and tossing plunging necks.
Who knows what war he fought in and whose shot
tumbled his whinnying steed? Envy of fountains.
Poor hero on his island in the swirl of traffic,
denied the solace of an umbrageous linden
or chestnut with bright medals through its leaves.
Envy of columns. Calm. Envy of bells.
Peace widened the Sunday avenue in Milan.


Posted by: koolwine | January 11, 2017

Kosovo: Beyond the Mountains of the Damned

Beyond the Mountains of the Damned by Matthew McAllesterA journalist investigates the atrocities perpetrated by Serbs against their Albanian neighbors in the Kosovar city of Pec in 1999. 

Country Focus: Kosovo

Beyond the Mountains of the Damned: The War Inside Kosovo
By Matthew McAllester
Published by New York University Press, 2002.
225 pgs.

Genre: Nonfiction

About the author: McAllester, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, is currently the European editor of Newsweek. He has penned two other books: Bittersweet: Lessons from My Mother’s Kitchen, and Blinded by the Sunlight: Emerging from the Prison of Saddam’s Iraq.

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Matthew McAllester

Matthew McAllester


There is a feeling of true elation in the the transformed town. It’s not just that the war is over and they are home. For the first time in their lives, the Albanians of Pec don’t have to live with the Serbs. By August, there’s not a single Serb living in Pec. Although there are still thousands of Serbs left in Kosovo, Pec is not a place for them any more. There was too much killing in this town during the war for forgiveness, people say. Too much burning and stealing by too many Serbs. A Serb here would only be an opportunity for revenge and there would be hundreds lining up to seize the opportunity. Even a kindly old couple I met in mid-June are gone. They risked their lives to provide their Albanian neighbor with shelter during the war. The last time I saw them—just a couple of days after I met them—they were hiding in a locked pharmacy opposite the Italian base. A KLA man had called through their door that they had better be gone soon or they would be dead. In August, they are long gone.

Posted by: koolwine | December 31, 2016

Seychelles: The Edge of Eden

The Edge of Eden by Helen BenedictUpon arriving in the Seychelles in 1960, Penelope mopes about in her room longing for England, her husband Rupert falls for an island beauty, and their young daughters dabble in witchcraft.        

Country Focus: Seychelles

The Edge of Eden
By Helen Benedict
Published by Soho Press, 2009.
312 pgs.

Genre: Fiction

About the author: Benedict is best known for her reportage on the rape and sexual assault of female soldiers. Her award-winning book The Lonely Soldier inspired the Oscar-nominated documentary The Invisible War.

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Helen Benedict

Helen Benedict


“What’s a bonhomme de bois? said Zara, who pronounced the Creole she was learning as if it were the French she’d been taught at school. “What’s grigri?” Francis crouched down to tell her in a whisper that sent chills up her arms.

“The bonnonm, he is a mighty wizard. He can put a curse on somebody, he can cure the worst sicknesses, he can make someone love you forever. And the spells he uses, some call this Ti Albert and some call it grigri.”

A real wizard, just like in Daddy’s stories! Right there on their own island! Zara could hardly believe her luck.

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