Goyal, Rajeev*: The Springs of Namje: A Ten-year Journey From the Villages of Nepal to the Halls of Congress** (2012)
* RPCV Nepal (2001-2003)
** 2013 Paul Cowan Non-Fiction Award
Our discussion took place: May 2015. Participating in our discussion was Rajeev Goyal, the book’s author.
Review: © Booklist: Goyal, the son of Indian immigrants, joined the Peace Corps and was assigned to teach English in the small village of Namje in eastern Nepal. In this very frank memoir of the hardships, failures, and successes, he recalls dealing with the discomforts of the caste system and learning that supposedly ignorant villagers had skills and knowledge helpful to developing their communities and nations. He is brutally honest about the unintended consequences of well-meaning efforts, such as building a water pump system to pull water up the mountain, a project that likely brought the villagers into contact with Maoist rebels. When his service ended, Goyal remained involved in issues of development, including boosting funding for the Peace Corps. He tells the story of his 10-year journey as attorney and activist, walking the halls of Congress, shaking hands and securing promises for more funding at a time of budget cutting, eventually securing an additional $60 million for the Peace Corps. An honest and inspiring look at the hard work and reward of development efforts.
Gyasi, Yaa: Homegoing (2016)
Our discussion took place: August 2017
Review: © School Library Journal: This sweeping family saga encompasses seven generations of descendants of a Fante and his captured Asante house slave. After giving birth to a daughter, Maame manages to escape, making her way alone back to her own village. She is taken in by an Asante warrior, becomes his third wife, and has a second daughter by him. The two sisters, Effia and Esi, will never meet, their lives will follow very different paths, but their descendants will share a legacy of warfare and slavery. Effia will marry an Englishman who oversees the British interest in the Gold Coast slave trade. Esi will be captured by Fante warriors, traded to the Englishmen, and shipped to America to be sold into slavery. Progressing through 300 years of Ghanaian and American history, the narrative unfolds in a series of concise portraits of each sister’s progeny that capture pivotal moments in each individual’s life. Every portrait reads like a short story unto itself, making this volume a good choice for harried teens, yet Gyasi imbues the work with a remarkably seamless feel. Through the combined historical perspectives of each descendant, the author reveals that racism is often rooted in tribalism, greed, and the lust for power. Many students will be surprised to discover that the enslavement of Africans was not just a white man’s crime.
Hammer, Joshua: The Bad-Ass Librarians Of Timbuktu: And Their Race To Save The World’s Most Precious Manuscripts (2016)
Our discussion took place: January 2019
Review: © Publishers Weekly: Journalist Hammer (Yokohama Burning) reports on librarian Abdel Kader Haidara and his associates’ harrowing ordeal as they rescued 370,000 historical manuscripts from destruction by al-Qaeda-occupied Timbuktu. Hammer sketches Haidara’s career amassing manuscripts from Timbuktu’s neighboring towns and building his own library, which opened in 2000. Meanwhile, three al-Qaeda operatives, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, Abdel-hamid Abou Zeid, and Iyad Ag Ghali, escalate from kidnapping and drug trafficking to orchestrating a coup with Tuareg rebels against the Malian army and seizing Timbuktu. The militants aim to “turn the clocks back fourteen hundred years” by destroying revered religious shrines and imposing Sharia law, which includes flogging unveiled women and severing the hands of thieves. Fearing for the safety of the manuscripts, Haidara and associates buy up “every trunk in Timbuktu” and pack them off 606 miles south to Bamako, employing a team of teenage couriers. Hammer does a service to Haidara and the Islamic faith by providing the illuminating history of these manuscripts, managing to weave the complicated threads of this recent segment of history into a thrilling story.
Herrera, Susana*: Mango Elephants in the Sun: How Life in an African Village Let Me Be in My Skin** (1999)
* RPCV Cameroon (1992-1994)
** 2000 Paul Cowan Non-Fiction Award
Our discussion took place: November 2012
Review: © Publishers Weekly: In 1992, Herrera set off for Northern Cameroon, where she spent two years as a volunteer teacher in the Peace Corps. While her Navajo and Spanish origins would make her a person of color in the U.S., the villagers of Guidiguis perceived her as a white woman or nasara, a term she soon realized had more to do with American culture and privilege than with skin color. Guidiguis, she found, was both modern and retrograde. The king and the mayor both had televisions and luxury cars, her neighbor bought a CD player and most of the residents appeared to have electricity, though it functioned erratically. Still, most of the daily workwashing, cooking, carrying water, grinding millet, making clothes, etc., was done by hand, and by women, which often disturbed Herrera. A fine storyteller, she paces her account so that her past in California slowly emerges (it turns out she has left an abusive marriage) between such adventures as eating termites and finding ingenious ways to circumvent the schools tradition of corporal punishment. Though the occasional bits of magical realism and mediocre poetry feel forced, the prose is lively overall. The combination of Herrera’s spunk, her romantic interest in a local doctor and her clever response to the political tensions involved in a teachers strike make for an absorbing read. Clearly Herrera knows how to balance the bad with the good. Its no wonder that by the time her stay ended, many of her new friends in Guidiguis saw her departure as a tragedy.
Hessler, Peter*: River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze** (2001)
* RPCV China (1996-1998)
** 2002 Paul Cowan Non-Fiction Award
Our discussion took place: February 2011. Participating in our discussion was Peter Hessler, the book’s author.
Review: © Kirkus Reviews: A two-year sojourn in a small city in central China yields this youthful, gracefully impressionistic portrait of a time and place from newcomer Hessler. In 1996, Hessler reported for his Peace Corps duty to Fuling, a city of some 200,000 souls astride the murky Yangtze River, which cuts through the green and terraced mountains of Sichuan Province. This account is a chronicle of the author’s days in Fuling and of a brief summer interlude of travel farther afield. Hessler’s writing is unselfconsciously mellow, a lazy pace that works admirably in conjuring up Fuling as a place. There is the gentle knock of the croquet ball in the morning when the court below his window comes to life. There is this river city of steps pressed against hills; there are ridgelines cut with ancient calligraphy and pictographs that disappear under water during the rainy season. There are his students–a poignant, watershed generation who delight him to no end. Big things happen while he is in China (the Three Gorges Project is in full swing and Deng Xiaoping dies), but it is the everyday stuff that is so affecting. The surprise and unpredictability of the townsfolk catch him unawares more than once, he feels the sensitivity of being a foreigner, with all eyes upon him and little cultural abrasions everywhere: “Those were our Opium Wars, quiet and meaningless battles over Chinese and American history, fueled by indirect remarks and careful innuendo.” And he loves it, despite the dislocations and frustrations: even the creepy drinking bouts at banquets (“Every banquet has a leader, a sort of alcoholic alpha male”) and the relentless mocking of his foreignness by strangers (for, although the Peace Corps is no longer considered a running-dog outfit, foreigners are nonetheless seen as freaks) become sources of nostalgia after a while. A vivid and touching tribute to a place and its people.
Heyn, Michael*: In Search of Decency: The Unexpected Power of Rich and Poor (2013)
* RPCV Peru (1964-1966)
Our discussion took place: January 2015. Participating in our discussion was Michael Heyn, the book’s author.
Synopsis: Michael Heyn’s uncommon memoir–In Search of Decency: The Unexpected Power of Rich and Poor–is a gripping and inspiring inside story of the struggle to eliminate poverty and growing inequality around the world. It provides a one-of-a-kind comparative perspective and analysis of the ever-widening divide between rich and poor that cut across the 15 countries, including the US, in which he lived and worked mostly in service of the Peace Corps and the United Nations. Michael shares his experience and work over those 50 years, from two years in a Peruvian village, to civil war in Liberia, to confronting extreme deprivation in Nairobi’s Kibera slum, to the ousting of dictators from Malawi and Yemen, and not least, to addressing growing inequality in America. Michael’s book is a very personal account, full of vignettes from a life lived on the front edge of the unexpected. It is a lifelong tale from an unsettling yet inspiring childhood to facing the challenges and setbacks in joining an uncertain quest for equal opportunity and justice through international development. It is a chronicle of learning from mistakes and building on experiences to find a clearer vision and realistic path to what would work. It is an optimistic journey of accumulating discovery grounded in a belief in the basic decency and potential power of people to cross over what divides them and to come together for the common good. It proposes practical partnerships of rich and poor to accomplish this.
Hill, Lawrence: Someone Knows My Name (2007)
Our discussion took place: February 2019
Review: © Publishers Weekly: Stunning, wrenching and inspiring, the fourth novel by Canadian novelist Hill (Any Known Blood) spans the life of Aminata Diallo, born in Bayo, West Africa, in 1745. The novel opens in 1802, as Aminata is wooed in London to the cause of British abolitionists, and begins reflecting on her life. Kidnapped at the age of 11 by British slavers, Aminata survives the Middle Passage and is reunited in South Carolina with Chekura, a boy from a village near hers. Her story gets entwined with his, and with those of her owners: nasty indigo producer Robinson Appleby and, later, Jewish duty inspector Solomon Lindo. During her long life of struggle, she does what she can to free herself and others from slavery, including learning to read and teaching others to, and befriending anyone who can help her, black or white. Hill handles the pacing and tension masterfully, particularly during the beginnings of the American revolution, when the British promise to free Blacks who fight for the British: Aminata’s related, eventful travels to Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone follow. In depicting a woman who survives history’s most trying conditions through force of intelligence and personality, Hill’s book is a harrowing, breathtaking tour de force.
Hirsi Ali, Ayaan: Infidel (2007)
Our discussion took place: April 2014
Review: © Publishers Weekly: Readers with an eye on European politics will recognize Ali as the Somali-born member of the Dutch parliament who faced death threats after collaborating on a film about domestic violence against Muslim women with controversial director Theo van Gogh (who was himself assassinated). Even before then, her attacks on Islamic culture as “brutal, bigoted, [and] fixated on controlling women” had generated much controversy. In this suspenseful account of her life and her internal struggle with her Muslim faith, she discusses how these views were shaped by her experiences amid the political chaos of Somalia and other African nations, where she was subjected to genital mutilation and later forced into an unwanted marriage. While in transit to her husband in Canada, she decided to seek asylum in the Netherlands, where she marveled at the polite policemen and government bureaucrats. Ali is up-front about having lied about her background in order to obtain her citizenship, which led to further controversy in early 2006, when an immigration official sought to deport her and triggered the collapse of the Dutch coalition government. Apart from feelings of guilt over van Gogh’s death, her voice is forceful and unbowed: like Irshad Manji, she delivers a powerful feminist critique of Islam informed by a genuine understanding of the religion.
Holloway, Kris*: Monique and the Mango Rains: Two Years with a Midwife in Mali** (2007)
* RPCV Mali (1989-1991)
** 2007 Paul Cowan Non-Fiction Award
Our discussion took place: September 2012
Review: © Publishers Weekly: This tender, revelatory memoir recalls the two years Holloway spent as an impressionable Peace Corps volunteer in the remote village of Nampossela in Mali, West Africa. It centers on her close friendship with Monique, the village’s overburdened midwife. When Holloway (now a nonprofit development specialist) arrived in Nampossela in 1989, she was 22; Monique was only two years her senior. Yet Monique, barely educated, working without electricity, running water, ambulances or emergency rooms, was solely responsible for all births in her village, tending malnourished and overworked pregnant women in her makeshift birthing clinic. With one of the highest rates of maternal death in the world, these Malian women sometimes had to work right up until and directly after giving birth and had no means of contraception. Holloway especially noted Monique’s status as an underpaid female whose male family members routinely claimed much of her pay. Monique shared her emotional life with Holloway, who in turn campaigned for her rights at work and raised funds for her struggling clinic. Holloway’s moving account vividly presents the tragic consequences of inadequate prenatal and infant health care in the developing world and will interest all those concerned about the realities of women’s lives outside the industrialized world.
Hosseini, Khaled: And the Mountains Echoed (2013)
Our discussion took place: January 2016
Review: © Booklist: Saboor, a laborer, pulls his young daughter, Pari, and his son, Abdullah, across the desert in a red wagon, leaving their poor village of Shadbagh for Kabul, where his brother-in-law, Nabi, a chauffeur, will introduce them to a wealthy man and his beautiful, despairing poet wife. So begins the third captivating and affecting novel by the internationally best-selling author of The Kite Runner (2003) and A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007). An immense, ancient oak stands in Shadbagh, emblematic of the complexly branching stories in Hosseini’s vital, profound, and spellbinding saga of family bonds and unlikely pairings forged by chance, choice, and necessity. We meet twin sisters, one beautiful, one plain; one an invalid, the other a caretaker. Two male cousins, one a charismatic wheeler-dealer; the other a cautious, introverted doctor. A disfigured girl of great valor and a boy destined to become a plastic surgeon. Kabul falls and struggles to rise. Shadbagh comes under the rule of a drug lord, and the novel’s many limbs reach to Paris, San Francisco, and a Greek island. A masterful and compassionate storyteller, Hosseini traces the traumas and scarring of tyranny, war, crime, lies, and illness in the intricately interconnected, heartbreaking, and extraordinary lives of his vibrantly realized characters to create a grand and encompassing tree of life.
Johnson, Adam: The Orphan Master’s Son* (2012)
* 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
Our discussion took place: November 2015
Review: © Booklist: Pak Jun Do lives with his father at a North Korean work camp for orphans. In a nation in which every citizen serves the state, orphans routinely get the most dangerous jobs. So it is for Jun Do, who becomes a tunnel soldier, trained to fight in complete darkness in the tunnels beneath the DMZ. But he is reassigned as a kidnapper, snatching Japanese citizens with special skills, such as a particular opera singer or sushi chef. Failure as a kidnapper could lead directly to the prison mines. But in Johnson’s fantastical, careening tale, Jun Do manages to impersonate Commander Ga, the country’s greatest military hero, rival of Dear Leader Kim Jong Il and husband of Sun Moon, North Korea’s only movie star. Informed by extensive research and travel to perhaps the most secretive nation on earth, Johnson has created a remarkable novel that encourages the willing suspension of disbelief. As Jun Do, speaking as Ga, puts it, people have been trained to accept any reality presented to them. Johnson winningly employs different voices, with the propagandizing national radio station serving as a mad Greek chorus. Descriptions of everyday privations and barbarities are matter of fact, and Jun Do’s love for Sun Moon reads like a fairy tale. Part adventure, part coming-of-age tale, and part romance, The Orphan Master’s Son is a triumph on every level.
Johnson-Sirleaf, Ellen*: This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President (2009)
* 2011 Nobel Peace Prize
Our discussion took place: December 2013
Review: © Booklist: Africa’s first elected female president, Sirleaf chronicles her rise from an abused young wife and mother to a woman with a career in government finance and international banking to the president of Liberia since 2006. Sirleaf confronted corruption and incompetence through several Liberian governments and suffered imprisonment and exile for her controversial positions before ultimately returning and challenging the long and troubled history of her nation. Liberia was created by the U.S. to repatriate former slaves, creating a tension between Americo-Liberians and indigenous peoples that continues. She recounts her struggles at home and abroad; she watched dictator Samuel Doe and later Charles Taylor destroy Liberia while she continued to criticize U.S. involvement with corrupt regimes. Having no colonial power to overcome, Sirleaf contends that Liberia has often struggled to develop and maintain a sense of true national integration, something she has sought to achieve as she has worked to bring economic and social stability to her civil-war-torn nation. An inspiring inside look at a nation struggling to rebuild itself and the woman now behind those efforts.
Kaplan, Robert D.: In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond (2016)
Our discussion took place: September 2017
Review: © Kirkus Reviews: Romania was a journalistic backwater when the author’s bestselling Balkan Ghosts appeared in 1993. In this equally captivating sequel, veteran journalist Kaplan (Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, 2014, etc.) brings matters up to 2015. The Ukraine is across the border, Russia and the Middle East just beyond; all are hot spots putting increasing stress on Romania, which is making remarkable progress after 40 miserable years as a Soviet satellite following 10 as a Nazi ally. Its leader during the final 24 years of Soviet rule, Nicolae Ceaușescu, enjoyed praise from the free world for his independence from Moscow, but he ran a particularly oppressive and corrupt government, “nothing less than a very Latin-style tyranny, a blend of Joseph Stalin and Juan Perón in the underbelly of Eastern Europe.” His murder by revolutionaries in 1989 left an impoverished nation with no democratic traditions, a situation that Kaplan described vividly in Balkan Ghosts. Repeating his technique in this book, the author zigzags around the country and occasionally beyond, admiring the landscape, describing the cities (crumbling Stalinist architecture giving way to vast malls and apartment complexes, with the occasional jewel from earlier centuries), and interviewing government officials, surviving apparatchiks, intellectuals, historians, and fellow journalists. He seems to have read every novel, history, and scholarly work on his subject and quotes liberally, delivering a scattershot, often contradictory, and always entertaining avalanche of opinions on Romania’s history, national character, and worries (mostly, again, about Russia). Kaplan does not promote Romania, but he has written a journalistic tour de force that will convince readers that it’s a fascinating place whose people, past, and current geopolitical dilemma deserve our attention.
Kidder, Tracy: Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World (2003)
Our discussion took place: May 2012
Review: © School Library Journal: Thought-provoking and profoundly satisfying, this book will inspire feelings of humility, admiration, and disquietude; in some readers, it may sow the seeds of humanitarian activism. As a specialist in infectious diseases, Farmer’s goal is nothing less than redressing the “steep gradient of inequality” in medical service to the desperately poor. His work establishing a complex of public health facilities on the central plateau of Haiti forms the keystone to efforts that now encompass initiatives on three continents. Farmer and a trio of friends began in the 1980s by creating a charitable foundation called Partners in Health (PIH, or Zanmi Lasante in Creole), armed with passionate conviction and $1 million in seed money from a Boston philanthropist. Kidder provides anecdotal evidence that their early approach to acquiring resources for the Haitian project at times involved a Robin Hood type of “redistributive justice” by liberating medical equipment from the “rich” (Harvard) and giving to the “poor” (the PIH clinic). Yet even as PIH has grown in size and sophistication, gaining the ability to influence and collaborate with major international organizations because of the founders’ energy, professional credentials, and successful outcomes, their dedicated vision of doctoring to the poor remains unaltered. Farmer’s conduct is offered as a “road map to decency,” albeit an uncompromising model that nearly defies replication. This story is remarkable, and Kidder’s skill in sequencing both dramatic and understated elements into a reflective commentary is unsurpassed.
Kidjo, Angélique, with Rachel Wenrick: Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music (2014)
Our discussion took place: April 2015
Review: © Library Journal: Kidjo’s memoir brims with the same joy, exuberance, and wisdom exhibited in her music while adding depth and insight into her art and life and the triumph of making connections through music. She grew up in Benin (West Africa), with a family full of songs and love. In order to continue to create her music, Kidjo fled a dictatorship and moved to France, where she struggled to support herself and against the “coolness toward African immigrants.” She studied music, got married, and built on her interest in human rights. Through many collaborations-with Carlos Santana, Ziggy Marley, and Branford Marsalis, to name only a few-across cultures, styles, and countries, she details how she combines the music of Africa with music from the diaspora, extracted through slavery, constructing unique combinations and blending modern and traditional, roots and technology, jazz, and more with drums and complex rhythms at the center. She outlines how she has used her notoriety, as well as her predilection to speak her mind, to visit and advocate for women and children through UNICEF and her own foundation.
Krakauer, Jon: Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way (2011)
Our discussion took place: April 2012
Review:© Amazon: Greg Mortenson is the bestselling author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, a tireless advocate for improved education in impoverished areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the founder of the Central Asia Institute (CAI), a non-profit that builds schools in these areas. He’s also, according to Jon Krakauer, not all that he appears to be. Krakauer is himself a bestselling author (Into the Wild, Into Thin Air), with a well-deserved reputation for penetrating nonfiction. Motivated by his own humanitarian concerns, and having donated considerable sums to CAI, Krakauer now applies his investigative skills to the unmasking of what he calls the “image of Mortenson that has been created for public consumption… an artifact born of fantasy, audacity, and an apparently insatiable hunger for esteem.” Did Mortenson discover the village that inspired his crusade while wandering lost down K2? Was he abducted and held for eight days by the Taliban? Has he built all the schools that he has claimed? Tempered by Krakauer’s fairly giving CAI credit where it’s due, Three Cups of Deceit mounts an extensive, passionate exploration into these questions.
Kristof, Nicholas D. and Sheryl WuDunn: Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (2009)
Our discussion took place: October 2011
Review: © Publishers Weekly: New York Times columnist Kristof and his wife, WuDunn, a former Times reporter, make a brilliantly argued case for investing in the health and autonomy of women worldwide. More girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the wars of the twentieth century, they write, detailing the rampant gendercide in the developing world, particularly in India and Pakistan. Far from merely making moral appeals, the authors posit that it is impossible for countries to climb out of poverty if only a fraction of women (9% in Pakistan, for example) participate in the labor force. China’s meteoric rise was due to women’s economic empowerment: 80% of the factory workers in the Guangdong province are female; six of the 10 richest self-made women in the world are Chinese. The authors reveal local women to be the most effective change agents: The best role for Americans… isn’t holding the microphone at the front of the rally but writing the checks, an assertion they contradict in their unnecessary profiles of American volunteers finding compensations for the lack of shopping malls and Netflix movies in making a difference abroad.