PPCA’s Book Club now seeks input regarding our book selections for 2020 and perhaps a little beyond. The survey is open through 5:00 pm on Friday, November 15, 2019. First please scan through the choices below, recording the Survey #s of up to 10 books. Then you’ll find the survey link at the bottom of this page.
Abouzeid, Rania: No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria (2018)
Review: © Publishers Weekly: Foreign correspondent Abouzeid spins finely detailed and informed narratives of how life in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria descended into street protests and the bloody ongoing chaos of the “civilian revolution.” Abouzeid explores the revolt, primarily through the stories of young men who take on the regime, including Suleiman, a wealthy middle manager turned activist; Mohammad, a father imprisoned for suspected Islamist ties and subjected to grisly tortures; and the pseudonymous Abu Azzam, a literature student turned rebel fighter. She also conveys the plight of noncombatants, such as one young girl, Ruha, and her family, who escape to Turkey to become “business-class refugees,” out of immediate danger but enduring the hardships of a foreign country while trying to aid those in their hometown across the border. The author skillfully sets forth the complex political and military rivalries between those supporting and opposing the regime, discussing their backers from Saudi Arabia and Qatar as well as the foreign and homegrown fighters who became ISIS. In notes at the beginning and end, Abouzeid details her intense and perilous reporting process. She was banned from the country, she explains, soon after protests began, but nevertheless spent roughly three weeks a month clandestinely entering Syria for the next several years. Her grueling reportage is a formidable accomplishment.
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi: Purple Hibiscus (2003)
Review: © The New York Times: For Kambili, The Nigerian teenager who is the protagonist of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s strong first novel, it’s not always clear which is worse—living under a brutally paternalistic government or living with a seemingly saintly father who uses religion to torment her. Navigating her way through an adolescence that is devastated by a military coup and a fanatical father, Kambili realizes she has options only when she befriends a gregarious aunt who doesn’t regard her as a sinning heathen. Unfortunately, the more the aunt takes Kambili under her wing, the more the girl suffers at the hands of her father, who prefigures the fires of hell by scalding her feet with hot water and worse. What complicates their relationship, and makes Purple Hibiscus more than a story of tough love run amok, is the father’s generosity to others. He wins a human rights award, he spreads his wealth around and he’s the publisher of the only newspaper that stands up to the corrupt government. Beginning with the novel’s riveting opening paragraph, Adichie makes it clear that Kambili’s allegiance to her father is not based just on masochistic devotion. The author’s straightforward prose captures the tragic riddle of a man who has made an unquestionably positive contribution to the lives of strangers while abandoning the needs of those who are closest to him.
Akpan, Uwem: Say You’re One of Them (2008)
Review: © Booklist: With this heart-stopping collection, which includes the New Yorker piece, An Ex-Mas Feast, that marked Akpan as a breakout talent, the Nigerian-born Jesuit priest relentlessly personalizes the unstable social conditions of sub-Saharan Africa. Throughout, child narrators serve as intensifying prisms for horror, their vulnerability and slowly eroding innocence lending especially chilling dimensions to the volume’s two most riveting entries: Fattening for Gabon (one of the book’s three novellas), about the systematic grooming of a Benin 10-year-old and his sister for sale to a sex-slavery ring; and the collection’s title story, a harrowing plunge into the mind of a mixed-race girl during the Rwandan genocide. From the slurp of machetes slashing into flesh to a toddler’s oblivious stomping through blood puddling from his mother’s crushed skull, Akpan tackles grisly violence head-on, but most of the stories, with the exception of the overlong, metaphor-laden Luxurious Hearses, are lifted above consciousness-raising shockers by Akpan’s sure characterizations, understated details, and culturally specific dialect. Don’t expect to emerge with redemption delivered on a silver platter. The stories’ tattered hope comes indirectly, from the thirst for broader knowledge about Africa’s postcolonial conflicts they’ll engender, and from the possibility that the collection’s opening map, with the featured nations labeled (as helpful as it is a glaring symbol of most Western readers’ woeful ignorance), will someday prove superfluous.
Anwar, Arif: The Storm (2018)
Review: © Booklist: Anwar tells stories that span continents and decades as his characters interconnect. It opens with a cyclone approaching Bangladesh in 1970 as the wife of an impoverished fisherman who’s out on a boat entrusts their three-year-old son, Shahryar, to a friend to find shelter. The narrative then loops back and forth from that time and place to Burma in 1942, India in 1946, and Washington, D.C., in the early 1990s and 2004. Chapters focus on characters, including a privileged Indian husband and wife, a British doctor whose husband is a senior army officer, a Japanese pilot, and an American woman graduate student, as their stories illuminate and personalize historical events, such as the Japanese invasion of Burma and the partition of India. The common thread throughout is Shahryar, who is raised by the Indian couple and does graduate work in America, where he courts a woman with whom he has a daughter whose life he wants to be part of after the romance ends. While deceit and cruelty occur, these stories are suffused with love and compassion that most often motivate action. A remarkable debut, in which fiction vividly portrays specific events in history.
Chang, Leslie T: Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China (2008)
Review: © Publishers Weekly: Chang, a former Beijing correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, explores the urban realities and rural roots of a community, until now, as unacknowledged as it is massive–China¿s 130 million workers whose exodus from villages to factory and city life is the largest migration in history. Chang spent three years following the successes, hardships and heartbreaks of two teenage girls, Min and Chunming, migrants working the assembly lines in Dongguan, one of the new factory cities that have sprung up all over China. The author¿s incorporation of their diaries, e-mails and text messages into the narrative allows the girls–with their incredible ambition and youth–to emerge powerfully upon the page. Dongguan city is itself a character, with talent markets where migrants talk their way into their next big break, a lively if not always romantic online dating community and a computerized English language school where students shave their heads like monks to show commitment to their studies. A first generation Chinese-American, Chang uses details of her own family¿s immigration to provide a vivid personal framework for her contemporary observations. A gifted storyteller, Chang plumbs these private narratives to craft a work of universal relevance.
Chatwin, Bruce: In Patagonia (1977)
Review: © Independent (excerpt): In Patagonia made Bruce Chatwin famous overnight. On the book’s publication in 1977, reviewers rightly compared it to Mandeville’s Travels, to Alexander Kinglake’s Eothen and Robert Byron’s The Road To Oxiana. Like those predecessors, In Patagonia revolutionised travel writing. Puckish and witty, it rebuked the po-faced and self-vaunting character of many post-war travelogues. Instead of setting out in search of a river’s source, a mountain’s summit or a lost tribe, Chatwin headed for South America on the trail of a piece of brontosaurus skin and ended up finding sloth turds at the end of the world. Chatwin’s achievement was one of technique as well as tone, for the book is dazzlingly experimental in form. It is divided into 97 short untitled pieces, some as brief as a single paragraph and few longer than four pages. Little narrative energy is expended describing how or why Chatwin’s narrator moves between locations and encounters. People are met who tell stories or have stories told about them, almost all of which are in some way to do with wandering and nomadism. Set piece follows set piece, and the whole is rendered in a style that is charismatically terse and angular, existing as a kind of literary Cubism: fragments tilted towards and away from one another in complex relation.
Contreras, Ingrid Rojas: Fruit of the Drunken Tree (2018)
Review: © Booklist: In this incomparable debut novel, Contreras draws on her own experience growing up in turbulent 1990s Bogotá, Colombia, amid the violence and social instability fueled by Pablo Escobar’s narcotics trafficking. In vividly rendered prose, textured with generous Spanish, Contreras tells the story of an unlikely bond between two girls on the verge of womanhood: Chula, the daughter of a middle-class family, and Petrona, the teenager hired to serve as the family’s maid. While Chula’s family can afford to protect themselves behind the suburban walls of a gated community, Petrona must support her many siblings as they struggle to survive the inner-city slums. Despite their differences, and driven by Chula’s curiosity about Petrona’s odd habits, the two become inseparably close until decisions must be made that will alter their futures forever. Contreras’ deeply personal connection to the setting lends every scene a vital authenticity, and a seemingly unlimited reservoir of striking details brings the action to life, like the trumpets and accordions on Christmas Eve, or the messy Afro of Petrona’s suspicious new boyfriend. A riveting, powerful, and fascinating first novel.
Couto, Mia: Rain and Other Stories (2019)
Review: © Booklist: Couto’s (Woman of the Ashes, 2018) collection of 26 short stories is wide ranging in theme, mood, and genre within the framework of Mozambique’s postwar sociopolitical realities. Writing “”between the banks of anguish and hope, Couto has focused these stories, almost vignettes in some cases, on emotional nuances. Through the tragedy of The Flag in the Sunset to the darkly satirical War of the Clowns to the whimsical Beyond the River Bend to the funny Jorojão’s Cradle of Memories Couto evokes a quality of lingering sadness and dramatizes his characters’ searches for something beyond. His descriptions of landscapes and people have the power and mystery of the best style of folklore. The strength of his characters, whether he’s portraying an old math professor exploring love, a cross-dressing neighbor, or a businessman creating a happy communal space as a gift to God is most apparent in how with few words their varied lives become relatable. Becker’s translation conveys Couto’s precise use of language to capture the innately elusive nature of human experience.
Dennis-Benn, Nicole: Here Comes the Sun (2016)
Review: © Library Journal: Thandi, a 15-year-old Jamaican student, hopes for a better life for her mother, -Delores, and her sister, Margot. To support the family and pay Thandi’s tuition to a private school, Delores sells trinkets to the rich tourists from the cruise ships, and Margot, now 30, works at the Palm Star Resort by day, providing sexual entertainment to rich white tourists at night. Thandi, instead of choosing medicine as her mother and sister urge, wants to be an artist and longs to spend time with her boyfriend. This debut novel addresses the plight of modern Jamaicans, especially women, as they try to coexist with a tourist industry that provides work but also degrades them and bulldozes their villages for still more resorts. Dennis-Benn’s strength lies in her characterization and honesty. She reveals the complexity of Margot’s choices as she works tirelessly to give her sister the chance to escape the poverty and racism that people face in so-called paradise and at the same time exploits the young prostitutes who work for her. Bahni Turpin’s narration captures the local dialect expertly. Feminists and readers of postcolonial literature will love this cleverly written social commentary.
Djavadi, Négar: Disoriental (2018)
Review: © Booklist: We meet Kimiâ in a fertility-clinic office. She is alone, waiting with a tube of sperm, for the chance to become a mother. She has already lied to the fertility-clinic staff about her intentions to marry the man whose sperm she carries, but the reason for her deception is not immediately clear. What is obvious from the beginning of this riveting novel is that Djavadi is an immensely gifted storyteller, and Kimiâ’s tale is especially compelling. The winner of multiple awards in France, this debut novel in translation follows the fortunes of one Iranian family from the dawn of the twentieth century through the revolution and their Parisian exile. The youngest of three daughters, Kimiâ was still a child when her family fled Iran, crossing the Turkish border under cover of night. Her father, a journalist and political dissident who played a role in the start of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, fought the extremist regime with a passion that culminated in a tragedy the family can only refer to as THE EVENT. But the roots of their story go back much further, to her great-grandfather and the harem of wives he kept on his land near the Caspian Sea. Kimiâ unthreads the narratives of her family history, and the shaping of her own identity, with the insight and verve of a master storyteller.
Eggers, Dave: What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng (2006)
Review: © Publishers Weekly: Valentino Achak Deng, real-life hero of this engrossing epic, was a refugee from the Sudanese civil war-the bloodbath before the current Darfur bloodbath-of the 1980s and 90s. In this fictionalized memoir, Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) makes him an icon of globalization. Separated from his family when Arab militia destroy his village, Valentino joins thousands of other “Lost Boys,” beset by starvation, thirst and man-eating lions on their march to squalid refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, where Valentino pieces together a new life. He eventually reaches America, but finds his quest for safety, community and fulfillment in many ways even more difficult there than in the camps: he recalls, for instance, being robbed, beaten and held captive in his Atlanta apartment. Eggers’s limpid prose gives Valentino an unaffected, compelling voice and makes his narrative by turns harrowing, funny, bleak and lyrical. The result is a horrific account of the Sudanese tragedy, but also an emblematic saga of modernity-of the search for home and self in a world of unending upheaval.
Fallows, Deborah: Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language (2010)
Review: © Booklist: Fallows manages to take the relatively dry subject of translation and create a warm and witty memoir. Dwelling less on her own feelings then on the intricacies of language mastery, she shares experiences after she and her husband moved to China that taught her just how complex Mandarin can be. Such as the fact that there are 400 syllables in Mandarin as opposed to 10 times that number in English, making tone crucial in conversation. Fallows makes all this fascinating by writing in a thoroughly engaging manner that not only invites readers into her experiences, but also delights them with her discoveries. There is confusion with a Cantonese cab driver, the manicurist who envisioned almost perfect happiness, and the employee at Taco Bell who thought Fallows wanted to hug him (she was inquiring about takeout). From observations about maps, naming children, and the struggle over one language for a nation where over 300 million speak something other than Mandarin, Fallows takes readers on a ride through Chinese culture that is as entertaining as it is informative.
García Márquez, Gabriel: One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967/1970)
Wikipedia: One Hundred Years of Solitude is a landmark 1967 novel by Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez that tells the multi-generational story of the Buendía family, whose patriarch, José Arcadio Buendía, founded the town of Macondo, a fictitious town in the country of Colombia. The magical realist style and thematic substance of One Hundred Years of Solitude established it as an important representative novel of the literary Latin American Boom of the 1960s and 1970s, which was stylistically influenced by Modernism (European and North American) and the Cuban Vanguardia (Avant-Garde) literary movement.
Han, Kang: The Vegetarian (2007/2015)
Review: © Booklist: When ordinary and submissive Yeong-hye becomes a vegetarian, her family treats her decision as both a disease and a betrayal. As they try to control her, their own manners deteriorate, culminating in violence, adultery, and estrangement. Yeong-hye becomes a Bartleby-like figure as her personal choice morphs into other acts of social rebellion, such as being shirtless in public or refusing to ingest anything but water. Korean writer Han Kang’s elegant yet unsettling prose conveys her protagonist’s brother-in-law’s obsessive, art-centered lust; her sister’s tepid, regret-riddled existence; and Yeong-hye’s vivid, disturbing dreams. What is more upsetting is how the characters’ taboo behavior begins to seem reasonable over time, perhaps because they have ignored their desires for so long. Divided into three novellas, The Vegetarian shows how one woman’s step toward independence destroys a family that thrives on oppression and what they consider to be normal. Readers will want more of the author’s shocking portrayals of our innermost doubts, beliefs, and longings.
Hessler, Peter*: The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution (2019)
* RPCV China 1996-1998
Review: © Publishers Weekly: New Yorker foreign correspondent Hessler (Oracle Bones) lived in Egypt during the months and years following the 2011 ouster of president Hosni Mubarak, and his account of learning Arabic, befriending a diverse array of characters, and gingerly probing the sore spots of Egyptian society is at once engrossing and illuminating. While Hessler lives in Cairo and much of the early action centers there, he ventures more widely than most foreigners in the country, and his reporting from sleepy upper Egyptian villages and remote Chinese development projects add complexity. Most of Hessler’s contacts get roughed up and imprisoned by the security services at one point or another, often for inscrutable reasons: “There was no point to the brutality-it served no larger purpose.” He returns frequently to the theme of internal tension and contradiction-that Egyptians “combined rigid tradition with ideas that could be surprisingly open-minded or nonconformist”-to contrast the brittle institutions of the state, such as courts, with the deep-seated social patterns and relationships that provide structure when the state is dysfunctional or ineffectual. Adroitly combining the color and pacing of travel writing and investigative journalism with the tools and insight of anthropological fieldwork and political theory, this stakes a strong claim to being the definitive book to emerge from the Egyptian revolution.
Hochschild, Adam: King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa (1998)
Review: © Publishers Weekly: Hochschild’s superb, engrossing chronicle focuses on one of the great, horrifying and nearly forgotten crimes of the century: greedy Belgian King Leopold II’s rape of the Congo, the vast colony he seized as his private fiefdom in 1885. Until 1909, he used his mercenary army to force slaves into mines and rubber plantations, burn villages, mete out sadistic punishments, including dismemberment, and commit mass murder. The hero of Hochschild’s highly personal, even gossipy narrative is Liverpool shipping agent Edmund Morel, who, having stumbled on evidence of Leopold’s atrocities, became an investigative journalist and launched an international Congo reform movement with support from Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington and Arthur Conan Doyle. Other pivotal figures include Joseph Conrad, whose disgust with Leopold’s “civilizing mission” led to Heart of Darkness; and black American journalist George Washington Williams, who wrote the first systematic indictment of Leopold’s colonial regime in 1890. Hochschild (The Unquiet Ghost) documents the machinations of Leopold, who won over President Chester A. Arthur and bribed a U.S. senator to derail Congo protest resolutions. He also draws provocative parallels between Leopold’s predatory one-man rule and the strongarm tactics of Mobuto Sese Seko, who ruled the successor state of Zaire. But most of all it is a story of the bestiality of one challenged by the heroism of many in an increasingly democratic world.
House, Karen Elliot: On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines–and Future (2012)
Review: © Choice: This critical indictment of Saudi Arabia’s authoritative monarchy, conservative religion, corrupt economy, and repressive culture was not written by an outspoken Islamophobe or a hostile Saudi foe but by a diplomatic correspondent, foreign editor, and publisher of the Wall Street Journal. Covering Saudi Arabia for 35 years, House began primarily concerned with an oil-rich and influential Arab Muslim country but increasingly wanted “to understand the Saudi people and the lives they led and what that portends for the future stability.” Although history and politics are included, the theme is contemporary culture organized by topics and bolstered by many interviews and anecdotes involving women, youth, religion, and oil. House offers pithy comments: “The Saudi python is having a very hard time digesting its youth bulge”; “In oil-rich Saudi Arabia, good education is one thing money can’t buy”; and “Saudi women remain trapped in cocoons, but they are flexing to burst free.” Despite the fault lines she describes and the seething discontent she underscores, the author would like to be hopeful and optimistic but regretfully concludes that the status quo is likely to continue.
Khalifa, Khaled: Death is Hard Work (2019)
Review: © Booklist: A more challenging scenario than the one facing siblings Bolbol, Fatima, and Hussein in this powerhouse novel would be hard to imagine. The siblings’ father has died, and his final wish was to be buried in his ancestral village in Syria’s Aleppo region. In a country engaged in active civil war, though, the two-hour drive from their home in Damascus could cost the siblings their lives. Refusing to look away from its characters’ challenges, the novel is clear-eyed in its presentation of living in a war zone. Many bodies are uncollected on roadsides and eaten by dogs. Is it potentially worth the siblings’ own lives to prevent this fate for their father? At checkpoints, guards demand to see papers for the corpse to some he is a traitor even while dead and threats of imprisonment, bombing, and torture are real. Each with singular histories and needs, the siblings are living out the most existential of questions: What actually matters in a dangerous world? Winner of the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, Syrian author Khalifa (In Praise of Hatred, 2014) reaches readers with a style that is straightforward, true, and profound.
King, Lily: Euphoria (2014)
Review: © Publishers Weekly: The love lives and expeditions of controversial anthropologists Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune, and Gregory Bateson are fictionalized and richly reimagined in New England Book Award winner King’s (Father of the Rain) meaty and entrancing fourth book. Set in the 1930s in Papua New Guinea, this impeccably researched story illuminates the state of the world as clearly as the passion of its characters. Many years into his study of the isolated Kiona tribe, Andrew Bankson (the stand-in for Bateson here) is recovering from a recent failed suicide attempt when he meets with renowned anthropologist Nell Stone (Mead) and her fiery husband Fen (Fortune) at a party. His vigor for life renewed after meeting them, Andrew introduces the couple to the tribe they’ll be studying, who live a few hours away, down the Sepik River. Before long, Andrew becomes obsessed-not just with his work but with Nell, and the relationship tangle sets off a fateful series of events. While the love triangle sections do turn pages (Innuendo! Jealousy! Betrayal!), King’s immersive prose takes center stage. The fascinating descriptions of tribal customs and rituals, paired with snippets of Nell’s journals-as well as the characters’ insatiable appetites for scientific discovery-all contribute to a thrilling read that, at its end, does indeed feel like “the briefest, purest euphoria.”
Martins, Giovani: The Sun on My Head: Stories (2018)
Review: © Publishers Weekly: Young men contend with the violence and corruption of Rio de Janerio in this tantalizing debut from Brazilian Martins. The characters in these stories represent a full spectrum of favela life, from the aspiring graffiti artist, Fernando, who longs to give his son a better childhood than his father offered him (“The Tag”) to the drug pusher forced to dispose of the body of a customer he kills in a fit of pique (“The Crossing”). In “Spiral,” a student who commutes to a tony neighborhood becomes obsessed with its residents, “who inhabited a world unknown to me”; he stalks one for months before he sees in his subject’s “eyes the horror of realization.” Martins’s characters and the situations they navigate grab the reader’s attention, but he often shies away from offering a resolution. “TGIF” defies this tendency, accompanying its protagonist on a harrowing subway ride to score drugs in a distant favela and ending in a confrontation with a crooked cop. In Martins’s Rio, every interaction is a negotiation, and everyone is “in the same boat: hard up, dopeless, wanting to chill beachside.” This is a promising work from an intriguing new voice.
Moore, Wayétu: She Would Be King (2019)
Review: © Publishers Weekly: Moore’s debut explores the contradictions of Liberia’s tenuous 19th-century beginnings in this impressive fantasy that revolves around three indelible characters. A Vai girl, Gbessa, is cursed for being born on the day a wicked fellow tribe member dies. Thirteen years later, she is left in the woods to die but miraculously survives years of deprivation and a lethal snake bite. June Dey, born on a Virginia plantation, restrains his inhuman strength until seeing his mother brutally punished unleashes his rage. He flees slavery, discovering that bullets and knives bounce off him. Norman Aragon inherits the ability to become invisible from his Jamaican mother and fair complexion from his British father, who plots to take him to England for scientific experimentation. The three separately find their way to Monrovia and join together briefly to fight back against slavers. Gbessa narrowly escapes being kidnapped by slavers, gets taken in as a housemaid for a family of former American slaves that have settled in Africa, and endures the lingering prejudices of her employers after marrying into their social circle. June and Norman discover ongoing slave raids in the countryside and use their gifts to help the fledgling state’s fractured tribes fight European meddlers. Moore uses an accomplished, penetrating style-with clever swerves into fantasy-to build effective critiques of tribal misogyny, colonial abuse, and racism.
Moyo, Dambisa: Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa (2009)
Review: © Publishers Weekly: In this important analysis of the past fifty years of international (largely American) aid to Africa, economist and former World Bank consultant Moyo, a native of Zambia, prescribes a tough dose of medicine: stopping the tide of money that, however well-intentioned, only promotes corruption in government and dependence in citizens. With a global perspective and on-the-ground details, Moyo reveals that aid is often diverted to the coffers of cruel despotisms, and occasionally conflicts outright with the interests of citizens-free mosquito nets, for instance, killing the market for the native who sells them. In its place, Moyo advocates a smarter, though admittedly more difficult, policy of investment that has already worked to grow the economies of poor countries like Argentina and Brazil. Moyo writes with a general audience in mind, and doesn’t hesitate to slow down and explain the intricacies of, say, the bond market. This is a brief, accessible look at the goals and reasons behind anti-aid advocates, with a hopeful outlook and a respectful attitude for the well-being and good faith of all involved.
Nayeri, Dina: Refuge (2017)
Review: © Library Journal: As antiimmigration sentiment stirs throughout the West, it’s easy to forget the trauma experienced by those forced to leave their homelands fleeing war, famine, or religious persecution. Nayeri’s new novel, after A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea, is a poignant reflection on the plight of refugees from the perspective of Niloo Hamadi, who arrived in the United States from Iran as an impressionable eight-year-old. Raised in Oklahoma with her brother Kian, educated at the best American schools, now married to Guillaume and pursuing a career in anthropology in Amsterdam, Niloo could be a poster child for the ideal émigré experience. A tightly controlled overachiever, she has little sympathy for her Rumi-quoting, hashish-smoking father, who stayed behind in Isfahan. During their few reunions, she is embarrassed by his excesses and neediness while subconsciously harboring a yearning for the love and generosity of spirit they once shared. Longing to recapture her Iranian identity, Niloo befriends a community of alienated asylum seekers, causing her to reevaluate her life choices. Verdict Nayari uses gentle humor and evocative prose to illuminate the power of familial bonds and to bestow individuality on those anonymous people caught between love of country and need for refuge. A beautiful addition to the burgeoning literature of exile.
Nwaubani, Adaobi Tricia: Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree (2018)
Review: © Hornbook: An unnamed girl in a remote village in northern Nigeria has many dreams: to have a new pair of shoes, to get enough to eat, to grow up to become a wife and a teacher, and, most ambitiously, to win a government scholarship that will allow her to attend boarding school and then university. In brief chapters, some less than a page long, the narrator relates the quotidian events of her life; the outside world intrudes via Papas radio, always tuned to BBC Hausa and bringing disquieting news of attacks by the radical Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram. Readers come to know the girl well as she spends time with her best friend, Sarah; has a few precious chances to talk to her crush, the pastors son; and is awarded the scholarship. But then Boko Haram arrives, killing the men and boys and kidnapping the girls. The rest of the book describes, in clear, immediate prose, the girls horrific experiences: beaten, taught that Western education is taboo, forced to convert to Islam (those who refuse are shot), and finally married against her will to a Boko Haram commander and routinely raped. Though the narrator resists indoctrination, Sarah slowly succumbs; her conversion (and ultimate death as a suicide bomber) is convincingly and chillingly portrayed. At book’s end, the protagonist is rescued but faces a realistically mixed future. A lengthy (and rather rambling) afterword by journalist Viviana Mazza about the 2014 Chibok kidnapping provides more background.
Owuor, Yvonne Adhiambo: Dust (2013)
Review: © Booklist: Set in arid northern Kenya amid the political turmoil of the latter half of the twentieth century, this powerful first novel will evoke references to William Boyd and even to Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad. From the dramatic prologue in which Odidi Oganda is killed in a hail of bullets, to his sister Ajany’s investigation of his life and death, author Owuor shifts back and forth from the Mau-Mau movement (in which Odidi and Ajany’s father, Nyipir, may have been complicit), to Kenya’s postindependence hopes and horrors, to the near-present, taking in along the way bloodshed, betrayal, and the critically tragic assassination of Tom Mboya in 1969, after which, we are told, Kenya’s official languages became English, Kiswahili, and Silence. The Oganda family’s relationship to the English colonialist Boltons, including sire Hugh, whose life had crossed Nyipir’s, is at the center of this compelling saga. When Hugh’s son Isaiah comes to Kenya to trace his father’s fate, the intersection of his activities with Ajany’s becomes the driving center of this important addition to the literature of contemporary Africa.
Pamuk, Orhan*: A Strangeness in My Mind (2014/2015)
* 2006 Nobel Literature Prize
Review: © Booklist: Nobel laureate Pamuk’s (The Museum of Innocence, 2009) profound love for his city, Istanbul, is the life force in this intricately detailed and patterned fairy-tale-like novel that follows the footsteps and life of a humble, contemplative street vendor. Mevlut leaves his village at age 12, in 1969, to join his father in Istanbul, where he ekes out a living selling yogurt door to door. As Mevlut comes into his own and finds deep meaning in the traditions of street peddling, especially his magical nighttime route selling boza, a fermented beverage he comes to believe is holy, he develops a mystical connection to the rhythms and secrets of the city, which lets you hide the strangeness in your mind inside its teeming multitudes. After catching a mere glimpse of the prettiest of three sisters (the eldest is married to his older cousin), Mevlut secretly courts her by writing poetic love letters, until, with a cousin’s help, they elope. But there’s a catch, a bit of treachery that infuses this many-voiced, multigenerational novel with subtle suspense. As his meditative hero walks the streets for five decades, balancing his wooden yoke on his shoulders, Pamuk, a deeply compassionate and poetic writer, illuminates dreadful and dazzling Istanbul’s violent upheavals and ceaseless metamorphosis, women’s struggles for freedom, and the strange vicissitudes of love.
Shadid, Anthony: House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East (2012)
Review: © Booklist: Shadid is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the grandson of Lebanese immigrants. After reporting on various conflicts in the Middle East, he took an extended leave of absence to restore his family’s ancestral home in Marjayoun, located in southern Lebanon. The effort was clearly an attempt to reconnect with or rediscover his family’s past, and he uses the rebuilding of the home as a metaphor for that search. Shadid describes the town of Marjayoun in his great-grandfather’s time in idyllic terms, where Christians and Muslims lived in relative harmony against a background of flourishing agriculture and physical beauty, dominated by the majestic peak of Mount Hermon. His memoir is well written and deeply felt, but his sentimentality sometimes seems over the top and his frequent jumps from past to present can be confusing. Still, this is an interesting and often emotionally stirring account of Shadid’s search for a time and place that are irrevocably lost.
Sijie, Dai: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (2001)
Review: © Publishers Weekly: The Cultural Revolution of Chairman Mao Zedong altered Chinese history in the 1960s and ’70s, forcibly sending hundreds of thousands of Chinese intellectuals to peasant villages for “re-education.” This moving, often wrenching short novel by a writer who was himself re-educated in the ’70s tells how two young men weather years of banishment, emphasizing the power of literature to free the mind. Sijie’s unnamed 17-year-old protagonist and his best friend, Luo, are bourgeois doctors’ sons, and so condemned to serve four years in a remote mountain village, carrying pails of excrement daily up a hill. Only their ingenuity helps them to survive. The two friends are good at storytelling, and the village headman commands them to put on “oral cinema shows” for the villagers, reciting the plots and dialogue of movies. When another city boy leaves the mountains, the friends steal a suitcase full of forbidden books he has been hiding, knowing he will be afraid to call the authorities. Enchanted by the prose of a host of European writers, they dare to tell the story of The Count of Monte Cristo to the village tailor and to read Balzac to his shy and beautiful young daughter. Luo, who adores the Little Seamstress, dreams of transforming her from a simple country girl into a sophisticated lover with his foreign tales. He succeeds beyond his expectations, but the result is not what he might have hoped for, and leads to an unexpected, droll and poignant conclusion. The warmth and humor of Sijie’s prose and the clarity of Rilke’s translation distinguish this slim first novel, a wonderfully human tale.
Theroux, Paul*: The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate Safari (2013)
* RPCV Malawi 1963-1965
Review: © Kirkus Review: Theroux (The Lower River, 2012, etc.) is the purest kind of travel writer; he offers no tips, no hotels gems or restaurant recommendations, and very few grand, clichéd this-is-what-my-journey-taught-me-about-myself moments. Instead, the author dissects a place and its inhabitants, luxuriating in its history and confronting its present reality. In what he terms his “ultimate African safari,” Theroux manages to incorporate—rather than avoid—the general viewpoints of literature about the continent. He revels in the simple, historical life of the bush but acknowledges its basis in fantasy. He decries the chronic ailments of governments and citizens and still appreciates the vast expanses of beauty, but without the wide-eyed wonder of so many travelers. In this intensely personal book, Theroux honestly confronts racism, stigma, privilege and expectations. He describes both the privilege and the perversity of slum tours and points out Western complicity in what he calls the voyeurism of poverty, which turns poverty itself into a profitable endeavor. After years of travel writing Theroux willingly questions the very relevance of the endeavor. If the narrative occasionally feels repetitive, it is due to the fact that the author is stressing an important point—though his constant ranting about rap music does start to sound like an old man griping. Still, even his age is significant, and Theroux continually demonstrates the wonder and enthusiasm that has led him on so many adventures during his long career. “Show me something new, something different, something changed, something wonderful, something weird!” he writes. “There has to be revelation in spending long periods of time in travel, otherwise it is more waste.” Reading this enlightening book won’t only open a window into Theroux’s mind, it will also impart a deeper understanding of Africa and travel in general.
Tolentino, Jia*: Trick Mirror: Reflections of Self-Delusion (2019)
* RPCV Kyrgyzstan 2010
Review: © Booklist: Tolentino brings a preternaturally aware millennial sensibility and exceptional literary skills to her keenly inquisitive and complexly involving essays. A New Yorker writer with a consequential online following, Tolentino is adept at transmuting autobiography into penetrating and unpredictable critiques of the self and the zeitgeist. In nine substantial and kinetic investigations built on deep reading, intrepid reckoning, and daring disclosures, Tolentino considers an array of slippery yet key questions. She assesses the impact of the internet on our sense of personal and communal identity and responsibility. She recounts her childhood as a rare Asian American in a large Texas evangelical church community, her role in a teen reality-TV show, and her stints at the University of Virginia and in the Peace Corps, delving into race, gender, sexual assault, and feminism in its current market-friendly and mainstream form. Tolentino investigates literary heroines, religion, self-optimization, weddings, ecstasy chemical and mystical, and the perversities of the Trump administration. In the zone of Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, Elif Batuman, and Leslie Jamison, Tolentino adeptly pursues a granular understanding of undermining paradoxes with wit, verve, and righteousness.
Troost, J. Maarten: Getting Stoned with Savages: A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu (2006)
Review: © Publishers Weekly: Using a format similar to that of his previous work, The Sex Lives of Cannibals, Troost creates another comical and touching travel memoir. Troost and his wife, Sylvia, move from busy Washington, D.C., to Vanuatu, a nation made up of 83 islands in the South Pacific. As Sylvia works for a regional nonprofit, Troost immerses himself in the islands’ culture, an odd mix of the islanders’ thousand-year-old “kastoms” along with imperialist British and French influences. This really means that Troost gets to live in a nice house while he gets drunk on kava; dodges “a long inferno of magma and a cascade of lava bombs” at the “world’s most accessible volcano”; and checks out the “calcified” leftovers from one of Vanuatu’s not-so-ancient traditions, cannibalism. At the end of the book, the couple move to Fiji so that Sylvia will have state-of-the-art medical care when she gives birth to their first baby. While modern-day Fiji provides little fodder for Troost’s comic sensibilities, the birth of his son enables him to share some deeper thoughts and decide it is “time to stop looking for paradise.” A funny travelogue with a sentimental heart, Troost’s latest work genuinely captures the search for paradise as well as the need for home.
Wiley, Richard*: Tacoma Stories (2019)
* RPCV South Korea 1967-1969
Review: © Publishers Weekly: Wiley’s antic, wrenching collection of 14 interlocking stories reveals the subtle connections among a dozen characters whose unpredictable lives evolve through the decades in the title city. The first story, “Your Life Should Have Meaning on the Day You Die,” takes place on St. Patrick’s Day in a formerly popular Tacoma, Wash., bar that has “started on its coast to oblivion.” The story stands on its own, but it also introduces the characters who will populate the rest of the volume. Lindy, for example, introduced in the first story as “a woman whose ex was doing time at McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary,” appears in the following one, “A Goat’s Breath Carol,” as a ninth grader asking her reluctant seventh grader neighbor to “show her his weenie.” Ralph, an English teacher in his 50s who plays a minor role in the first story, stars in a story set 10 years later, “Anyone Can Master Grief but He Who Has It.” Readers may need to take notes to keep track of the characters and their connections, but that close reading will pay off. The collection provides a tentatively affirmative answer to the question raised by a fictional version of the daughter of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth: “Do you think a town can act as a hedge against the unabated loneliness of the human heart?”
Zeppa, Jamie: Beyond the Sky and Earth: A Journey into Bhutan (1999)
Review: © Publishers Weekly: Zeppa’s story is nearly an inversion of the ancient Buddhist tale of Siddhartha (in which a prince ventures from the paradise of his father’s palace only to find the suffering and decay that he never knew existed) in that the author, at the age of 22, abruptly leaves a stale life in Canada to become a volunteer teacher in the remote and largely undisturbed Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan. Cloaked in the airy mountains between India and China, Bhutan initially frustrates but eventually captivates Zeppa with its rudimentary lifestyle that forces her to question former values and plans for the future. Though the story line would seem to open itself to cloying romanticization, Zeppa’s telling of her clumsy attempts to adapt rings with sincerity and inspires sympathy. She thinks to herself upon visiting a local house: “In one shadowy corner, there is a skinny chicken. I blink several times but it does not vanish. Is it a pet? Is it dinner?” Zeppa’s lucid descriptions of the craggy terrain and honest respect for the daily struggles of the natives bring the tiny land to life in a way that is reverent but real. Though she tries to avoid what a friend terms “that Shangri-La-Di-Da business” and grapples with the poverty, sexism and political squabbles in Bhutan that bother her, there is little doubt that she sees the place in a largely positive light and is tempted to remain. In the end, Zeppa’s is a lively tale of her earnest efforts to reconcile what she has learned with what she has known.