Achebe, Chinua*: Things Fall Apart (1958)
* 2007 Man Booker International Prize
Our discussion took place: December 2014
Review: © The Observer: First published in 1958–the year after Ghana became the first African nation to gain independence, as Britain, France and Belgium started to recognise the end of colonialism in Africa and began their unseemly withdrawal–Chinua Achebe’s debut novel concerns itself with the events surrounding the start of this disastrous chapter in African history. Set in the late 19th century, at the height of the “Scramble” for African territories by the great European powers, Things Fall Apart tells the story of Okonkwo, a proud and highly respected Igbo from Umuofia, somewhere near the Lower Niger. Okonkwo’s clan are farmers, their complex society a patriarchal, democratic one. Achebe suggests that village life has not changed substantially in generations. But then the English arrive in their region, with the Bible–rather than the gun–their weapon of choice. As the villagers begin to convert to Christianity, the ties that had ensured the clan’s equilibrium come undone. As Okonkwo’s friend Obierika explains: “The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers and our clan can no longer act like one.” Unwilling to adapt, Okonkwo finds himself the protagonist in a modern Greek tragedy. The first part of a trilogy, Things Fall Apart was one of the first African novels to gain worldwide recognition: half a century on, it remains one of the great novels about the colonial era.
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi: Half of a Yellow Sun (2006)
Our discussion took place: June 2010
Review: © Publishers Weekly: When the Igbo people of eastern Nigeria seceded in 1967 to form the independent nation of Biafra, a bloody, crippling three-year civil war followed. That period in African history is captured with haunting intimacy in this artful page-turner from Nigerian novelist Adichie (Purple Hibiscus). Adichie tells her profoundly gripping story primarily through the eyes and lives of Ugwu, a 13-year-old peasant houseboy who survives conscription into the raggedy Biafran army, and twin sisters Olanna and Kainene, who are from a wealthy and well-connected family. Tumultuous politics power the plot, and several sections are harrowing, particularly passages depicting the savage butchering of Olanna and Kainene’s relatives. But this dramatic, intelligent epic has its lush and sultry side as well: rebellious Olanna is the mistress of Odenigbo, a university professor brimming with anticolonial zeal; business-minded Kainene takes as her lover fair-haired, blue-eyed Richard, a British expatriate come to Nigeria to write a book about Igbo-Ukwu art–and whose relationship with Kainene nearly ruptures when he spends one drunken night with Olanna. This is a transcendent novel of many descriptive triumphs, most notably its depiction of the impact of war’s brutalities on peasants and intellectuals alike. It’s a searing history lesson in fictional form, intensely evocative and immensely absorbing.
Alder, Greg*: The Mountain School (2013)
* RPCV Lesotho (2003-2006)
Our discussion took place: September 2015. Participating in our discussion was Greg Alder, the book’s author.
Synopsis: The Kingdom of Lesotho is a mountainous enclave in southern Africa, and like mountain zones throughout the world it is isolated, steeped in tradition, and home to few outsiders. The people, known as Basotho, are respected in the area as the only tribe never to be defeated by European colonizers. Greg Alder arrives in Tšoeneng as the village’s first foreign resident since 1966. In that year, the Canadian priest who had been living there was robbed and murdered in his quarters. Set up as a Peace Corps teacher at the village’s secondary school, Alder finds himself incompetent in so many unexpected ways. How do you keep warm in this place where it snows but there is no electricity? For how long can dinners of cornmeal and leaves sustain you? Tšoeneng is a world apart from his home in America. But he persists in becoming familiar with the new lifestyle; he learns to speak the strange local tongue and is eventually invited to participate in initiation rites. Yet even as he seems accepted into the Tšoeneng fold, he sees how much of an outsider he will always remain—and perhaps want to remain. The Mountain School is insightful, candid, at times adaptive and at times rebellious. It is the ultimate tale of the transplant.
Alexievich, Svetlana*: Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets (2013/2016)
* 2015 Nobel Literature Prize
Our discussion took place: February 2018
Review: © The New York Times: Already hailed as a masterpiece across Europe, Secondhand Time is an intimate portrait of a country yearning for meaning after the sudden lurch from Communism to capitalism in the 1990s plunged it into existential crisis. A series of monologues by people across the former Soviet empire, it is Tolstoyan in scope, driven by the idea that history is made not only by major players but also by ordinary people talking in their kitchens.
Ansary, Tamim: Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes (2009)
Our discussion took place: April 2010
Synopsis: We in the west share a common narrative of world history—that runs from the Nile Valley and Mesopotomia, through Greece and Rome and the French Revolution, to the rise of the secular state and the triumph of democracy. But our story largely omits a whole civilization that until quite recently saw itself at the center of world history, and whose citizens shared an entirely different narrative for a thousand years. In Destiny Disrupted, Tamim Ansary tells the rich story of world history as the Islamic world saw it, from the time of Mohammed to the fall of the Ottoman Empire and beyond. He clarifies why our civilizations grew up oblivious to each other, what happened when they intersected, and how the Islamic world was affected by its slow recognition that Europe—a place it long perceived as primitive and disorganized—had somehow hijacked destiny. Entertaining and enlightening, Destiny Disrupted also offers a vital perspective on current conflicts.
Bâ, Mariama: So Long a Letter (1981)
Our discussion took place: June 2013
Synopsis: So Long a Letter is a landmark book – a sensation in its own country and an education for outsiders. Mariama Bâ a longtime women’s activist, set out to write a book that exposed the double standard between men and women in Africa. The result, So Long a Letter, eventually won the first Noma Award for Publishing in Africa. The book itself takes the form of a long letter written by a widow, Ramatoulaye, to her friend, over the mandatory forty-day mourning period following the death of a husband. Both women had married for love and had happy, productive marriages; both were educated, had work they loved and were intellectually alive. During their lives, both of these women’s husbands chose to take a second wife – and each woman then made a different choice. Ramatoulaye decided to stay married, although it meant rarely seeing her husband and knowing that he was squandering money on a young girl, a friend of her own daughter. Ramatoulaye’s friend divorced her husband and eventually left the country, settling in the United States. In her letter, Ramatoulaye examines her life and that of other women of Senegal – their upbringing and training and the cultural restrictions placed upon them. It is a devastating attack, made all the more powerful because of the intelligence and maturity of the narrator and the ability of Mariama Bâ to honor two very different choices within one framework.
Beebe, James*: Those Were the Days: A Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines in the Late ’60s (2014)
* RPCV Philippines (1968-1973)
Our discussion took place: April 2016. Participating in our discussion was James Beebe, the book’s author.
Abstract: A series of vignettes of significant, often funny, sometimes quite serious, events and encounters based on James’ Peace Corps experience in the Philippines. As a Volunteer from October 1968 to May 1973 James was profoundly changed by the joy of life and economic inequality he discovered while serving in the Philippines. He helped introduce a new activity-based approach to science teaching, learned the truth of the children’s rhyme that “Planting Rice is No Fun,” and taught part-time at a College. Life included buying a one-of-a-kind mosquito net, being offered a love potion, witnessing the funeral processions of poor babies, holidays, and being attacked by dogs after eating dog meat. The cloud of the Vietnam War had a significant impact. The most life-changing event almost didn’t happen when Maria, the “matchmaker’s” intended choice, accused the Peace Corps of “fascism, imperialism, and neocolonialism.” Renewed efforts the next year resulted in an accepted marriage proposal 6 weeks later. James then had to secure the blessings of her grandmother, Huk Kumander Dayang-dayang, for a marriage 2 weeks later. They had to wade through a waste-high flood on their wedding day and spent their honeymoon in a 350 year old Catholic convent. Maria’s naturalization as a US citizen and acceptance into Peace Corps occurred during a 6 week trip to the US after which they returned as Volunteers to the Philippines.
Belli, Gioconda: The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War (2002)
Our discussion took place: October 2013
Review: © Publishers Weekly: Belli’s upper-class Nicaraguan family was unsympathetic to the Somoza dictatorship, but would have been shocked to learn that their 20-something daughter was joining the underground Sandinistas even as she worked her bourgeois day job at a prestigious advertising agency. This lush memoir follows Belli from her sterile marriage to her first affair, from her first published poem to her first subversive act, and then through a series of exiles, until her triumphant return to her liberated homeland… only to face another struggle to liberate her own heart. The account is both intensely personal and informatively political. Belli (The Inhabited Woman) was no mere sympathizer or mistress to a compañero but an active militant and strategist in her own right. She smuggled weapons, ran roadblocks, formed factions with revolutionary tendencies, argued strategy with Castro and represented liberated Nicaragua at Third World conferences from Moscow to Tripoli. An honest, insider’s account of the very real debates surrounding this major revolution would be valuable in itself, but Belli offers more: a frank examination of her own struggle for love. Only after a series of disastrous affairs does she realize she must stop adjusting herself to how she expects her lover will react and just be herself. Next to the monumental upheavals of the Sandinistan revolution, such personal revelations may seem minor, but to Belli and her compañeras, the battle was only half won if women were again relegated to mistress-to-the-mighty status. Belli shares her story in some 50 brief chapters, each subtitled to foreshadow content-an oddly reassuring format.
Benaron, Naomi: Running the Rift (2012)
Our discussion took place: February 2014
Synopsis: Running the Rift follows Jean Patrick Nkuba, a gifted Rwandan boy, from the day he knows that running will be his life to the moment he must run to save his life, a ten-year span in which his country is undone by the Hutu-Tutsi tensions. Born a Tutsi, he is thrust into a world where it’s impossible to stay apolitical—where the man who used to sell you gifts for your family now spews hatred, where the girl who flirted with you in the lunchroom refuses to look at you, where your Hutu coach is secretly training the very soldiers who will hunt down your family. Yet in an environment increasingly restrictive for the Tutsi, he holds fast to his dream of becoming Rwanda’s first Olympic medal contender in track, a feat he believes might deliver him and his people from this violence. When the killing begins, Jean Patrick is forced to flee, leaving behind the woman, the family, and the country he loves. Finding them again is the race of his life.
Benson, Adrienne*: The Brightest Sun (2018)
* RPCV Nepal (1992-1994)
Our discussion took place: May 2018. Participating in our discussion was Adrienne Benson, the book’s author.
Synopsis: Leona, an isolated American anthropologist, births a baby girl in a remote Maasai village and must decide how she can be a mother, in spite of her own grim childhood. Jane, a lonely expat wife, follows her husband to the tropics and learns just how fragile life is. Simi, a barren Maasai woman, must confront her infertility in a society in which females are valued by their reproductive roles. In this affecting debut novel, three very different women grapple with motherhood, recalibrate their identities, and confront unforeseen tragedies and triumphs. In beautiful, evocative prose, Adrienne Benson brings to life the striking Kenyan terrain as these women’s lives intertwine in unexpected ways. As they face their own challenges and heartbreaks, they find strength traversing the arid landscapes of tenuous human connection. With gripping poignancy, The Brightest Sun explores the heartbreak of loss, the struggle to find a sense of belonging, and the surprising ways we find our family and home.
Betancourt, Ingrid: Even Silence Has an End: My Six Years of Captivity in the Colombian Jungle (2010)
Our discussion took place: February 2017
Synopsis: Ingrid Betancourt tells the story of her captivity in the Colombian jungle, sharing teachings of resilience, resistance, and faith. Born in Bogotá, raised in France, Betancourt at age 32 gave up a life of comfort and safety to return to Colombia to become a political leader in a country that was being slowly destroyed by terrorism, violence, fear, and hopelessness. In 2002, while a candidate in the Colombian presidential elections, she was abducted by the FARC. She spent the next six and a half years in the depths of the jungle as their prisoner. Chained day and night for much of her captivity, she succeeded in getting away several times, always to be recaptured. The facts of her story are astounding, but it is Betancourt’s indomitable spirit that drives this very special account, bringing life, nuance, and profundity to the narrative.
Bissell, Tom*: Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia** (2004)
* RPCV Uzbekistan (1996-1997)
** 2004 Peace Corps Worldwide Best Travel Book
Our discussion took place: March 2011
Review: © Google: In 1960, the Aral Sea was the size of Lake Michigan: a huge body of water in the deserts of Central Asia. By 1996, when Tom Bissell arrived in Uzbekistan as a Peace Corps volunteer, disastrous Soviet irrigation policies had shrunk the sea to a third its size. Bissell lasted only a few months before complications forced him to return home, but he had already become obsessed with this beautiful, brutal land. Five years later, Bissell convinces a magazine to send him to Central Asia to investigate the Aral Sea’s destruction. There, he joins forces with a high-spirited young Uzbek named Rustam, and together they make their often wild way through the ancient cities (Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara) of this fascinating but often misunderstood part of the world. Slipping more than once through the clutches of the Uzbek police, who suspect them of crimes ranging from Christian evangelism to heroin smuggling, the two young men develop an unlikely friendship as they journey to the shores of the devastated sea. Along the way, Bissell provides a history of the Uzbeks, recounting their region’s long, violent subjugation by despots such as Jenghiz Khan and Joseph Stalin. He conjures the people of Uzbekistan with depth and empathy, and he captures their contemporary struggles to cope with Islamist terrorism, the legacy of totalitarianism, and the profound environmental and human damage wrought by the sea’s disappearance. Sometimes hilarious, sometimes powerfully sobering, Chasing the Sea is a gripping portrait of an unfamiliar land and the debut of a gifted young writer.
Bohjahlian, Chris: The Sandcastle Girls (2012)
Our discussion took place: June 2014
Review: © Booklist: Between April 1915 and April 1916, one and one-half million Armenians were killed by the Ottoman Empire during WWI. Bohjalian uses this as the backdrop for his new novel. Elizabeth Endicott accompanies her father to Aleppo, Syria, to bring aid to the Armenian deportees. While there, Elizabeth meets Armen Petrosian, an Armenian engineer working for the Germans and searching for his wife and child, though certain they are already dead. In spite of the loss and horror around them, they fall desperately in love. The story is told through the eyes of Laura Petrosian, Elizabeth and Armen’s great-granddaughter. After seeing an exhibit of photographs of the Armenian victims, she discovers letters and photos and begins to piece her great-grandparents’ story together. Soon “the slaughter you know next to nothing about” takes over her life, and she makes profound discoveries about her ancestors and herself. This is a powerful and moving story based on real events seldom discussed. It will leave you reeling.
Boo, Katherine: Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity* (2012)
* 2012 National Book Award for Nonfiction
Our discussion took place: February 2015
Review: © Booklist: While the distance between rich and poor is growing in the U.S., the gap between the haves and have-nots in India is staggering to behold. This first book by a New Yorker staff writer (and Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter for the Washington Post) jolts the reader’s consciousness with the opposing realities of poverty and wealth in a searing visit to the Annawaldi settlement, a flimflam slum that has recently sprung up in the western suburbs of the gigantic city of Mumbai, perched tentatively along the modern highway leading to the airport and almost within a stone’s throw of new, luxurious hotels. We first meet Abdul, whose daily grind is to collect trash and sell it; in doing so, he has “lifted his large family above subsistence.” Boo takes us all around the community, introducing us to a slew of disadvantaged individuals who, nevertheless, draw on their inner strength to not only face the dreary day but also ponder a day to come that will, perhaps, be a little brighter. Sympathetic yet objective and eloquently rendered.
Brooks, Geraldine: Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women (1995)
Our discussion took place: September 2011
Review: © Goodreads: Geraldine Brooks spent two years as a Middle East news correspondent, covering the death of Khomeini and the like. She also learned a lot about what it’s like for Islamic women today. Brooks’ book is exceedingly well-done–she knows her Islamic lore and traces the origins of today’s practices back to Mohammed’s time. Personable and very readable, Brooks takes us through the women’s back door entrance of the Middle East for an unusual and provocative view.
Brown-Waite, Eve*: First Comes Love, then Comes Malaria: How a Peace Corps Poster Boy Won My Heart and a Third World Adventure Changed My Life (2009)
* RPCV Ecuador (1988-1989)
Our discussion took place: June 2014. Participating in our discussion was Eve Brown-Waite, the book’s author.
Review: © Booklist: College graduate Eve is looking for a meaningful endeavor and settles on the Peace Corps. Though she’s not sure a life without creature comforts is for her, she is certain of one thing: John, the Peace Corps recruiter, is the guy for her. The couple faces a two-year separation when Eve receives a placement in Ecuador. Reluctantly, Eve leaves John and heads to South America where, after a time, she finds her niche reuniting lost children with their families–until a coworker’s rape brings up traumatic memories for her and she’s sent back home. Though her stint in the Peace Corps is over, a future with John means a life less ordinary, and soon after their marriage he accepts a job with CARE in Uganda. Once there, Eve finds the people welcoming but the lack of amenities–the power is turned on for only three hours at night–and the persistent insect population daunting. With an appealing, down-to-earth voice, Brown-Waite chronicles her adventures abroad in an accessible, humorous tone sure to appeal to armchair travelers.
Buck, Pearl S*: The Good Earth (1931)
* 1938 Nobel Literature Prize
Our discussion took place: February 2012
Review: © School Library Journal: This classic novel about Chinese peasant life around the turn of the 20th century seems a little dated now but still possesses enough emotional power to engage modern listeners. The book traces the slow rise of Wang Lung from humble peasant farmer to great landlord-a feat he achieves by steadily adding to his lands and making enormous sacrifices to retain them through hard times. As one of the first Western novels to explore the lives of ordinary Chinese, this work has had an enormous influence on American views of China, and it propelled Buck to the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938.
Byron, Robert: The Road to Oxiana (1937/2007)
Our discussion took place: April 2018
Synopsis: The Road to Oxiana is a travelogue by Robert Byron, first published in 1937. It is considered by many modern travel writers to be the first example of great travel writing. The word “Oxiana” in the title refers to the region along Afghanistan’s northern border. The book is an account of Byron’s ten-month journey to the Middle East in 1933–34, initially in the company of Christopher Sykes. It is in the form of a diary with the first entry “Venice, 20 August 1933” after which Byron travelled by ship to the island of Cyprus and then on to the then countries of Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Persia and Afghanistan. The journey ended in Peshawar, India (now part of Pakistan) on 19 June 1934, from where he returned to England.