Chilson, Peter*: Riding the Demon: On the Road in West Africa (1999)
* RPCV Niger (1985-1987)
Our discussion took place: July 2010. Participating in our discussion was Peter Chilson, the book’s author.
Review: © Publishers Weekly: In this vivid exploration of road culture in the West African nation of Niger, Chilson describes a crucial aspect of African culture as a whole: the bush taxi, or “taxi brousse.” A year spent taking journeys in this most common form of transportation in Africa leads Chilson further inside modern Africa than an earnest anthropologist would get, not least because of the danger involved. The people of West Africa abhor an empty Peugeot 504. The rickety old station wagons with balding tires, no windows and engines held together by a wing and a prayer gather at chaotic motor parks where they wait until at least 10 passengers are crammed aboard before taking off. These bush taxis are the great social leveler, since people from all walks of life use them. Auto accidents, horrendous and frequent, are a leading cause of death in Africa. Stationed along all routes are “checkpoints” manned by aggressive soldiers who expect bribes, the cost of which is factored in to the passengers’ fare. Little wonder that a fatalistic belief in the “demons” of the road dominates the drivers’ set of beliefs that also draws in the author, whose own fear is assuaged by amulets and, on occasion, numb withdrawal. There is an unrelenting quality to the excellent descriptive writing, appropriate perhaps because of the unrelenting life, but readers will hunger for more humor and better characterizations of the people the author met. Riding the Demon received the Associated Writing Programs award for creative nonfiction.
Chilson, Peter*: We Never Knew Exactly Where: Dispatches from the Lost Country of Mali (2013)
* RPCV Niger (1985-1987)
Our discussion took place: July 2013. Participating in our discussion was Peter Chilson, the book’s author.
Synopsis: What happens when a country suddenly splits in two? In 2012, Mali, once a poster child for African democracy, all but collapsed in a succession of coups and countercoups as Islamist rebels claimed control of the country’s north, making it a new safe haven for al Qaeda. Prizewinning author Peter Chilson became one of the few Westerners to travel to the conflict zone in the following months to document conditions on the ground. What he found was a hazy dividing line between the uncertain, demoralized remnants of Mali’s south and the new statelet formed in the north by jihadist fighters, who successfully commandeered a long-running rebellion by the country’s ethnic Tuareg minority to turn Mali into a new frontier in the fast-morphing global war on terror. Chilson’s definitive account — the first in the new Borderlands series of ebooks from Foreign Policy magazine and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting — is a gripping read, taking us back to the founding of French West Africa and right to the very front lines of this contentious new flashpoint.
Where to find it: Only available as an e-book: in Kindle format for Amazon devices; and as a PDF for other e-readers, tablets, and computers. The price is $4.99. Go to http://www.foreignpolicy.com/ebooks/we_never_knew_exactly_where, then either click the “Buy for Amazon Kindle” button or the “Buy the PDF version from FP here” link.
Chilson, Peter*, and Joanne B. Mulcahy: Writing Abroad: A Guide for Travelers** (2017)
* RPCV Niger (1985-1987)
** 2018 Peace Corps Worldwide Best Travel Book
Our discussion took place: November 2018. Participating in our discussion were Peter Chilson and Joanne B. Mulcahy, the book’s authors.
Synopsis: “Tell me all about your trip!” It’s a request that follows travelers as they head out into the world, and one of the first things they hear when they return. When we leave our homes to explore the wider world, we feel compelled to capture the experiences and bring the story home. But for those who don’t think of themselves as writers, putting experiences into words can be more stressful than inspirational. Writing Abroad: A Guide for Travelers is meant for travelers of all backgrounds and writing levels: a student embarking on overseas study; a retiree realizing a dream of seeing China; a Peace Corps worker in Kenya. All can benefit from documenting their adventures, whether on paper or online. Through practical advice and adaptable exercises, this guide will help travelers hone their observational skills, conduct research and interviews, choose an appropriate literary form, and incorporate photos and videos into their writing. Writing about travel is more than just safeguarding memories—it can transform experiences and tease out new realizations. With Writing Abroad, travelers will be able to deepen their understanding of other cultures and write about that new awareness in clear and vivid prose.
Cleave, Chris: Little Bee (2009)
Our discussion took place: September 2019
Review: © Kirkus Review: Cleave follows up his outstanding debut (Incendiary, 2005) with a psychologically charged story of grief, globalization and an unlikely friendship. The story opens in a refugee detention center outside of London. As the Nigerian narrator—who got her nickname “Little Bee” as a child—prepares to leave the center, she thinks of her homeland and recalls a horrific memory. “In the immigration detention center, they told us we must be disciplined,” she says. “This is the discipline I learned: whenever I go into a new place, I work out how I would kill myself there. In case the men come suddenly, I make sure I am ready.” After Little Bee’s release, the first-person narration switches to Sarah, a magazine editor in London struggling to come to terms with her husband Andrew’s recent suicide, as well as the stubborn behavior of her four-year-old son, Charlie, who refuses to take off his Batman costume. While negotiating her family troubles, Sarah reflects on “the long summer when Little Bee came to live with us.” Cleave alternates the viewpoints of the two women, patiently revealing the connection between them. A few years prior, Sarah and Andrew took a vacation to the Nigerian coast, not realizing the full extent to which the oil craze had torn the country apart. One night they stumble upon Little Bee and her sister, who are fleeing a group of rapacious soldiers prowling the beach. The frightening confrontation proves life-changing for everyone involved, though in ways they couldn’t have imagined. A few years later Sarah and Little Bee come together again in the suburbs of London, and their friendship—in addition to that between Little Bee and Charlie—provides some salvation for each woman. Though less piercing and urgent than his debut, Cleave’s narrative pulses with portentous, nearly spectral energy, and the author maintains a well-modulated balance between the two narrators. A solid sophomore effort, and hopefully a sign of even better things to come.
Contreras, Ingrid Rojas: Fruit of the Drunken Tree (2018)
Our discussion took place: May 2020
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.
Cooke, Julia: The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba (2014)
Our discussion took place: February 2020
Review: © Booklist: As the title suggests, this is a rather dreary portrait of post-Fidel Cuba. Cooke is a journalist and teacher at the New School in New York. Her observations are the result of living in Cuba and interacting with a variety of ordinary Cuban citizens over a five-year period. Her account is absorbing, touching, but certainly depressing. As described here, Cuba is a postrevolutionary culture in which the fires of revolution have burned out. So largely gone is the optimism, the spirit of community and self-sacrifice, and the belief in the creation of “the new socialist man.” What remains, unfortunately, is the political repression, stifling bureaucracy, and material deprivation. Cooke’s narrative includes wonderful vignettes covering the daily lives of Cubans in which their hopes, dreams, and frustrations are revealed. Lucia, a well-educated and relatively privileged young woman, sees little future for herself in Cuba and hopes to emigrate. So does Sandra, a street-smart prostitute who refutes government claims to have ended “exploitation.” But there are snippets of optimism, as citizens bravely and brazenly complain about their government.
Cooper, Helene: The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood (2008)
Our discussion took place: March 2018
Review: © Bookmarks: In her warm, conversational tone, Helene Cooper vividly evokes the sights, sounds, and smells of Liberia for readers as she describes the customs, history, and culture of her native land. Indeed, she has a great deal of background information to convey to Western readers unfamiliar with the country, but she folds this material masterfully into the narrative. An accomplished storyteller, Cooper relates the arrogance and excesses of her family during her early years without losing her readers’ sympathy, and she likewise depicts the joys of friendship and the horrors of war without becoming melodramatic or maudlin. Like the best nonfiction—and journalism—Cooper’s gripping coming-of-age story enlightens and inspires, often reading like a novel. In sum, it is a very personal and honest memoir from a gifted writer.
Cornelius, Gary*: Dancing with Gogos (2014)
* RPCV South Africa (2012-2013)
Our discussion took place: March 2015. Participating in our discussion was Gary Cornelius, the book’s author.
Synopsis: Dancing with Gogos is the story of one man’s effort to make a difference in a collection of Zulu villages in rural South Africa, while fulfilling a life-long dream of serving in the United States Peace Corps. It’s the story of learning a new language, of immersing oneself in a different culture, of leaving a love 15,000 kilometers behind and discovering the unexpected chance to find a new one half a world away. It’s the story of South Africa’s history of apartheid and the effects of that sorry legacy on tens of millions of black Africans who to this day struggle to leave behind 500 years of oppression. Gary Cornelius and 35 other would-be volunteers find themselves in a remote village in Mpumalanga Province as “trainees” for nine weeks of grueling learning before they can be sworn in as volunteers in “CHOP” – Peace Corps South Africa’s Community HIV-AIDS Outreach Program – to assume front-line positions in the battle to reduce spread of the disease in a country with one of the highest rates in the world. It’s an adventure none will ever forget.
Davis, Matthew*: When Things Get Dark: A Mongolian Winter’s Tale** (2010)
* RPCV Mongolia (2000-2002)
Our discussion took place: November 2010
Review: © Booklist: In 2000, at the age of 23, Davis leaves Chicago, his hometown, to travel to Mongolia to work as a teacher for the Peace Corps. Once he arrives in the small town of Tsetserleg, Davis moves into a ger, the circular tent that will be his home for the next two years, and gets to know the family whose land he is living on. He finds his students difficult to motivate, and a romance with a beautiful Mongolian teacher is heated but brief. After enduring a brutal Mongolian winter and a plague-induced quarantine, Davis finds himself falling into the trap he sees so many Mongolian men around him succumbing to: drinking constantly and giving into violent tendencies. The longer he’s in Mongolia, the deeper he falls into depression and ennui, until a violent encounter shakes him into realizing his life has to change. Both a raw personal examination and an insightful look at Mongolian history and culture, Davis’ illuminating memoir sheds light on a remote region.
Davis, Wade: Light at the Edge of the World: A Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures (2001)
Our discussion took place: September 2010
Review: © Booklist: Ethnobotanist and anthropologist Davis, author of One River (1996) and Shadows in the Sun (1998), has traveled the world for 25 years, pen and camera in hand, to study the myriad ways indigenous people live in physical and spiritual intimacy with the natural world. Driven by curiosity and a profound respect for the “ethnosphere,” humanity’s diverse “thoughts, beliefs, myths, and intuitions,” Davis has dwelled among the people of the Arctic, the Amazon, Haiti, Kenya, Borneo, Australia, and Tibet, learning their modes of being, cosmologies, and botanical expertise. His quest has rendered him acutely sensitive to the connection between biodiversity and cultural diversity, and as he portrays in pellucid language and magnificent photographs healers, shamans, hunters, and men, women, and children adept at survival in the most demanding of wildernesses, he decries the rampant environmental destruction and globalization that are decimating indigenous cultures, thus depriving future generations of their knowledge, wisdom, and unique perspectives. Aesthetically powerful in both word and image, this essential volume opens readers’ eyes and imaginations to the wonders of the earth and humanity’s varied “insights into the very nature of existence,” a bounty and legacy we simply cannot do without.
de Villiers, Marq, and Sheila Hirtle: Timbuktu: The Sahara’s Fabled City of Gold (2007)
Our discussion took place: January 2020
Review: © Booklist: Timbuktu is a city in central Mali near the Niger River. Founded in the eleventh century by the Tuareg, it became a major trading center primarily for gold and silver by the fourteenth century. It was invaded by a Moroccan army in 1590 and later was seized by Tuareg nomads. In their copiously researched book, the authors write of the city’s origins, its relation to the Niger River, its first and second golden ages, the coming of the Moroccans, and its long decline. De Villiers and Hirtle are co-authors of Sahara: The Extraordinary History of the World’s Largest Desert (2002) and Sable Island (2004), and this book, with maps and 12 black-and-white photographs, is a work of large scope, absorbing in its detail.
Demick, Barbara: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (2010)
Our discussion took place: October 2012
Review: © Booklist: In spite of the strict restrictions on foreign press, award-winning journalist Demick caught telling glimpses of just how surreal and mournful life is in North Korea. Her chilling impressions of a dreary, muffled, and depleted land are juxtaposed with a uniquely to-the-point history of how North Korea became an industrialized Communist nation supported by the Soviet Union and China and ruled by Kim Il Sung, then collapsed catastrophically into poverty, darkness, and starvation under the dictator’s son, Kim Jong Il. Demick’s bracing chronicle of the horrific consequences of decades of brutality provide the context for the wrenching life stories of North Korean defectors who confided in Demick. Mi-ran explains that even though her “tainted blood” (her father was a South Korean POW) kept her apart from the man she loved, she managed to become a teacher, only to watch her starving students waste away. Dr. Kim Ki-eum could do nothing to help her dying patients. Mrs. Song, a model citizen, was finally forced to face cruel facts. Strongly written and gracefully structured, Demick’s potent blend of personal narratives and piercing journalism vividly and evocatively portrays courageous individuals and a tyrannized state within a saga of unfathomable suffering punctuated by faint glimmers of hope.
Diamond, Jared: Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (2005)
Our discussion took place: January 2012
Review: © Amazon: Jared Diamond presents the biologist’s answer: geography, demography, and ecological happenstance. Diamond evenhandedly reviews human history on every continent since the Ice Age at a rate that emphasizes only the broadest movements of peoples and ideas. Yet his survey is binocular: one eye has the rather distant vision of the evolutionary biologist, while the other eye–and his heart–belongs to the people of New Guinea, where he has done field work for more than 30 years.
Dixon, Kay Gillies*: Tales of Family Travel: Bathrooms of the World** (2016)
* RPCV Colombia (1962-1964)
** 2017 Peace Corps Worldwide Best Travel Book
Our discussion took place: October 2018. Participating in our discussion was Kay Dixon, the book’s author.
Synopsis: Parents Kevin and Kay Dixon have always had a passion for travel that they love to share with their four daughters. In the late 1970s, a contract for Kevin to work in Saudi Arabia, that came with family benefits and a lucrative travel package, landed on their doorstep in an American suburb. The Dixons could not pack their bags fast enough. This was their opportunity to provide two fundamental values to their offspring — roots and wings. During their travels, the Dixons chose to spend little time wandering through archaic cathedrals, but looked beyond featured attractions for experiences to imprint into their children’s memories. Readers may find themselves holding their breaths or giggling as the family’s adventures unfold in Tales of Family Travel. Admittedly, successful globetrotting with young girls required patience and special considerations. Among them — always one daughter needed to use a bathroom, and never at a convenient time or place, and more often than not, it was the author who spent time searching for acceptable WCs or loos. Kay narrates this story with finesse and descriptions that take you along on a journey that includes travel by many means and experiences that including meeting a Baba in Nepal, checking out a diamond shop in The Netherlands, visiting a Maasai village in Kenya and more.
D’Souza, Tony*: Whiteman** (2006)
* RPCV Côte d’Ivoire, Madagascar 2000-2003
** 2007 Maria Thomas Fiction Award
Our discussion took place: August 2018. Participating in our discussion was Tony D’Souza, the book’s author.
Review: © Booklist: Jack Diaz is a young American relief worker in a Muslim village in the Ivory Coast, part of an endeavor to bring potable water to the impoverished villagers. As it becomes more and more apparent that he cannot achieve his original goal, he drifts into various projects from hunting to farming to teaching villagers about AIDS prevention to taking up ill–advised love affairs. Tensions between Muslims and Christians mount and add to the layers of cultural and political nuances that Jack struggles to understand. Christened Whiteman by the villagers, who believe him capable of magic by virtue of his white skin, Jack feels his whiteness more than he ever has in his life. As he penetrates the culture–but never achieves complete integration–he discovers a people not as simple and uncomplicated as he had thought. With war threatening to hasten the end of his three-year commitment, Jack’s affection for the region and the people heightens, and he seeks forgiveness for his privilege and ineffectiveness.
Ebadi, Shirin*, with Azadeh Moaveni: Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope (2006)
* 2003 Nobel Peace Prize
Our discussion took place: October 2015
Review: © Booklist: Most Americans date troubles with Iran to the 1979 overthrow of the shah and the 444-day U.S. embassy hostage drama. Iranians date the friction back to 1953, when the U.S. orchestrated a coup that removed beloved Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. Ebadi recalls that period as the beginning of shifting politics that would erode basic freedoms and notions of human rights in Iran. Raised to believe in gender equality, Ebadi became a judge but was demoted to secretary when the Islamic Revolution under Ayatollah Khomeini demanded subservience of women. Ebadi estimates that five million Iranians, feeling oppressed by the revolution, left the country, draining valuable resources and leaving bitterly separated families. Ebadi lost her profession, her friends, and her country but was determined to stay and speak out against oppression. She eventually returned to public life as a human-rights lawyer taking on the defense of women, children, and dissidents. Ebadi offers a very personal account of her life and her fight for human rights in Iran.
Eire, Carlos N.M.: Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy* (2003)
* 2003 National Book Award for Nonfiction
Our discussion took place: September 2016
Review: © The New Yorker: At the start of the nineteen-sixties, an operation called Pedro Pan flew more than fourteen thousand Cuban children out of the country, without their parents, and deposited them in Miami. Eire, now a professor of history and religion at Yale, was one of them. His deeply moving memoir describes his life before Castro, among the aristocracy of old Cuba—his father, a judge, believed himself to be the reincarnation of Louis XVI—and, later, in America, where he turned from a child of privilege into a Lost Boy. Eire’s tone is so urgent and so vividly personal (he is even nostalgic about Havana’s beautiful blue clouds of DDT) that his unsparing indictments of practically everyone concerned, including himself, seem all the more remarkable.
Erdman, Sarah*: Nine Hills to Nambonkaha: Two Years in the Heart of an African Village** (2003)
* RPCV Côte d’Ivoire (1998-2000)
** 2004 Paul Cowan Non-Fiction Award
Our discussion took place: March 2014. Participating in our discussion was Sarah Erdman, the book’s author.
Review: © Booklist: Erdman spent two years as a Peace Corps worker in the small town of Nambonkaha, Ivory Coast, at the end of the last decade. Erdman, who acted as a health-care worker and instructor, is surprised to find herself called upon to help women in labor, surrounded by curious children who want to learn to read, and honored with gifts from the chief. She also faces the challenge of trying to meld medical knowledge with traditional sorcery, as the village denizens believe most illness and misfortune is caused by witchcraft rather than infection. This is particular dangerous in regards to AIDS, which arrives in the village in the form of a young widow and her son. With the help of several of the town’s residents, including Sidibe, the only nurse in the town, Erdman begins teaching classes and sets up a baby-weighing station in the market. With graceful, thoughtful prose, Erdman ponders the problems the village faces and describes in vivid detail the many people she met there.
Fonseca, Isabel: Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey (1996)
Our discussion took place: December 2011
Review: © Library Journal: Traveling as a journalist, Fonseca stayed with a number of Gypsy families in Eastern Europe between 1991 and 1995. Through her experiences with them, study of the scholarship about them, and interviews with leading figures, she has produced a contemporary account of their status, incorporating details of their society, culture, and history. Her work portrays their commitment to tribal traditions and adherence to ritual and offers good insights, particularly into women’s lives. The author regards Gypsies as “an ancient scapegoat” who survive through their traditions and a collective denial of their mistreatment by outsiders, including the Germans during World War II. The author details the discrimination that has kept the Gypsies, now often called Roma, from development of an identity and acceptance by the international community.
French, Howard W.: China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in Africa (2014)
Our discussion took place: March 2017
Review: © Booklist: Although several recent books have discussed, in variously alarmist fashion, China’s recent incursions into Africa in pursuit of resources and profit, former New York Times journalist French (A Continent for the Taking, 2004) has the advantage of significant personal experience in both Africa and China. He also speaks Mandarin, so he can converse directly with some of the million or so members of the Chinese diaspora in Africa. They are a diverse lot—doctors, engineers, farmers, entrepreneurs, lobbyists, laborers, and prostitutes, among others—and accounts of their experience are often absent from analyses of Chinese-African relations, which typically focus on infrastructure building and resource grabbing. Interacting with Chinese and Africans in Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Namibia, and elsewhere, French capably illustrates that although the Chinese omnipresence in Africa may be a form of soft imperialism, it is also a result of the crushing pressures—lack of space, merciless business competition, pollution—of modern Chinese society. For many Chinese, he suggests, Africa means opportunity and relative freedom that cannot be had at home. If French is sympathetic to the plight of many Chinese immigrants, however, he remains critical of their casual racism and general callousness about their African hosts. And as he laments the seeming inevitability of corruption and environmental degradation, French’s disappointment in his cherished continent is palpable.
Fuller, Alexandra: Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood (2003)
Our discussion took place: February 2016
Review: © Booklist: Fuller, nicknamed “Bobo,” grew up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) during the civil war, and she watched her parents fight against the local Africans to keep their farm. Fuller writes from a child’s point of view, masking neither her family’s prejudices nor their passions. Fuller’s father, Tim, is a determined and strong man, married to Nicola, who is gradually cracking under the pressure of the civil war and also of the deaths of her children. The Fullers lost three children; only Alexandra and her older sister, Vanessa, survived. The losses take their toll on Nicola, who turns to alcohol to combat her overwhelming depression. After the white colonialists lose the civil war, the Fullers’ farm is taken away, and they move to Malawi, where Bobo begins to get a sense of the life of an average African. But the overbearing Malawian government motivates the Fullers to move on, and they finally settle in Zambia. Fuller is a gifted writer, capable of bringing a sense of immediacy to her writing and crafting descriptions so vibrant the reader cannot only picture the stifling hot African afternoon but almost feel it as well. Writing a memoir powerful in its frank straightforwardness, Fuller neither apologizes for nor champions her family’s views and actions. Instead, she gives us an honest, moving portrait of one family struggling to survive tumultuous times.