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Book Club

PPCA Book club

PPCA’s Book Club gatherings are open to all who have read that month’s book. Typically we start out discussing the book, and inevitably someone relates a theme in the book to their own experiences or other readings, so the conversation takes an interesting turn. Our Book Club discusses books of broad interest set in parts of the world in which Peace Corps Volunteers have served, or books which were authored by Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs). We love author appearances! Since 2010, we have hosted 40 different authors – in person, by phone, or via video.

 

Here are our upcoming book discussions:
 

March 2021 Book Club Selection

Beyond the Sky and Earth
Zeppa, Jamie: Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan (1999)

Discussion: Thursday, March 11, 2021, 6:30-8:00 pm. Online meeting via Zoom; e-mail bookclub@portlandpeacecorps.org for the login information.

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.

Where to find it:
Libraries: Multnomah Co | Washington Co
Vendors: Powell’s | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

 

April 2021 Book Club Selection

The Buried
Hessler, Peter*: The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution (2019)

* RPCV China 1996-1998

Discussion: Friday, April 23, 2021, 6:30-8:00 pm. Online meeting via Zoom; e-mail bookclub@portlandpeacecorps.org for the login information. Participating in our discussion will be Peter Hessler, the book’s author!

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.

Where to find it:
Libraries: Clackamas Co | Ft Vancouver | Multnomah Co | Washington Co
Vendors: Powell’s | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

May 2021 Book Club Selection

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
Sijie, Dai: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (2001)

Discussion: Wednesday, May 5, 2021, 6:30-8:00 pm. Online meeting via Zoom; e-mail bookclub@portlandpeacecorps.org for the login information.

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.

Where to find it:
Libraries: Clackamas Co | Ft Vancouver | Multnomah Co | Washington Co
Vendors: Powell’s | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

 

June 2021 Book Club Selection

Dust
Owuor, Yvonne Adhiambo: Dust (2013)

Discussion: Thursday, June 10, 2021, 6:30-8:00 pm. Online meeting via Zoom; e-mail bookclub@portlandpeacecorps.org for the login information.

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.

Where to find it:
Libraries: Clackamas Co | Ft Vancouver | Multnomah Co | Washington Co
Vendors: Powell’s | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

 

July 2021 Book Club Selection

Lopez, Barry: Horizon (2019)

Discussion: Wednesday, July 7, 2021, 6:30-8:00 pm. Online meeting via Zoom; e-mail bookclub@portlandpeacecorps.org for the login information.

Review: © Publishers Weekly: A globe-trotting nature writer meditates on the fraught interactions between people and ecosystems in this sprawling environmentalist travelogue. Essayist Lopez (Arctic Dreams) recounts episodes from decades of his travels, most of them tied to scientific investigations: camping on the Oregon coast while considering the exploits of British explorer James Cook; examining archaeological sites in the high Arctic while reflecting on the harshness of life there; hunting for hominin fossils in Kenya while weighing human evolution; scuba-diving under an Antarctic ice shelf while observing the rich marine biota. His free-associative essays blend vivid reportage on landscapes, wildlife, and the knotty relationships among the scientists he accompanies with larger musings on natural history, environmental and climate crises, and the sins of Western imperialism in erasing indigenous cultures. It's often hard to tell where Lopez is going with his frequent digressions: one two-page section skitters from global cancer rates past a one-eyed goshawk he once saw in Namibia to an astrophysics experiment at the South Pole to detect dark matter, with no particular conclusion. Still, his prose is so evocative-during a tempest at sea, "veils of storm-ripped water ballooned in the air around us" amid "the high-pitched mewling of albatrosses, teetering impossibly forty feet away from us on the wind"-and his curiosity so infectious that readers will be captivated.

Where to find it:
Libraries: Clackamas Co | Ft Vancouver | Multnomah Co | Washington Co
Vendors: Powell’s | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Most of our books are selected by an annual survey, featuring books widely available in local libraries. We schedule additional discussions when an author of a non-self-published book offers to meet with us. If you are interested in learning more about PPCA’s Book Club, please contact Bill Stein, at 503-830-0817 or bookclub@portlandpeacecorps.org.

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