Saturday, October 7, 2017

COLOMBIA





READ



The obvious choice when looking for a Colombian author is Gabriel Garcia Márquez, whose brilliant work I’ve read before. But I wanted something different, and I was particularly interested in finding a woman author. A little Internet searching turned up Laura Restrepo, who began her writing career as a political columnist. She has written several novels, some of which have been translated into English.

The one I chose, Delirium, begins when a man named Aguilar returns home to Bogotá after a few days away and discovers that his wife, Agustina, is in a state of delirium. This is not the first time she’s had a breakdown, but this one is more severe and lasts longer than usual. The book’s plot takes the reader through the factors and traumas in Agustina’s life that helped drive her to the condition in which Aguilar finds her.

There are different narrators throughout the book. First, there is Aguilar himself, whose story encompasses his life with Agustina, from the beginning of their relationship to the present. He is desperate to find a way to bring her back to the way she was before he left for his trip.

Then there is Agustina herself, although she refers to herself in the third person (“the girl Agustina”) and only as she was when she was still living at home with her parents. She craves her father’s approval above all else, but he is a hard man, giving approval only to his older son, who is much like himself.  He mostly ignores Agustina, and he is brutal to his younger son, whom he considers to be too effeminate. Agustina is the only one who can console her little brother after their father has beaten him.

Another narrator is a man known as Midas McAlister, who has been a friend of Agustina’s older brother since childhood. Midas was with Agustina when her breakdown occurred, but has his own troubles to deal with. Unlike Agustina’s family, who are members of the oligarchy, Midas has had to hustle for everything he has. Among other things, he serves as a middleman between the notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar and the oligarchy, who act as willing money launderers for Escobar, since he returns their money to them greatly multiplied.

Finally, Agustina’s dead grandparents are heard from intermittently throughout the book by way of passages from their journals. Agustina’s grandfather suffered from bouts of delirium too, and the back story in the journals gives the reader a look into Agustina’s family history.

Between the four narrators, the mystery of what brought on Agustina’s breakdown begins to reveal itself. Or does it? A quote from Gore Vidal with which the author opens Delirium calls into question everything the reader knows about Agustina: “Wise Henry James had always warned writers against the use of a mad person as central to a narrative on the ground that as he was not morally responsible, there was no true tale to tell.”

COOK

My husband and I travel to Colombia often to visit our son, his girlfriend, and their darling baby boy. Because of my frequent visits, I knew what dish I was going to cook for this post before I even knew which book I was going to read. A traditional dish in Colombia is cazuela de frijoles, which is basically just beans served over rice. In Colombia, it usually is served with a substantial portion of meat as well, and it’s not always easy to convince the server in a restaurant that I really do want it without the meat. I used a recipe from the Sweet y Salado website, omitting the ham hocks the recipe called for. I didn’t have the Colombian aliños seasoning cubes the recipe called for, but there was a Sweet y Salado recipe for that as well.  Likewise, I didn’t have the Sazón Goya seasoning packet for the aliños seasoning cubes, but Sweet y Salado had a recipe for that too.

I also made arepas to serve with the cazuela. These corn cakes are ubiquitous in Colombia, where it seems they’re a staple of almost every meal. Usually they’re made with butter and cheese, but I found a vegan recipe at PETA Latino’s website.



GIVE

Since Medellin is the Colombian city with which I’m most familiar, I wanted my donation to help people in that city. GlobalGiving had a project listed on their website that sounded perfect to me: building urban gardens to help people living in the impoverished Comuna 8 neighborhood.

According to the project description: “Comuna 8 is home to 11% of Medellin's displaced population, of which 98% earn at or below the minimum wage. Families that have moved away from their rural homelands to escape violence leave livelihoods behind. They are then confronted with lack of economic opportunity, which often can lead to crime or violence. This puts impoverished children and families at risk of not achieving their life project, exposure to physical harm, poor nutrition, and low educational attainment.”

The gardens created through this project enable families not only to eat nutritious food themselves, but to sell the surplus to supplement their incomes. More information about this project is available at https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/huertas-urbanas-medellin/.



NEXT STOP: COMOROS

Friday, September 29, 2017

CHINA




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There were so many books I could have chosen for China, and making a decision about which one to read was difficult. In the end, I picked Dai Sijie's Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress because I loved the book’s cover and its title.

The narrator is a seventeen-year-old boy, whose name we are never told, who has been sent out of the city of Chengdu with his eighteen-year-old friend Luo for “re-education.” According to the narrator, this was a campaign begun in 1968 by Chairman Mao in which the “universities were closed and all the ‘young intellectuals,’ meaning boys and girls who had graduated from high school, were sent to the countryside to be ‘re-educated by the poor peasants.’” Neither the narrator nor Luo are high school graduates, since they had missed out on a few years of school while the Cultural Revolution was in full swing. However, their parents are among the intellectual elite and have been labeled enemies of the people, so the boys will be going through the “re-education” process for an indefinite period of time.

In between carrying manure to the fields and laboring in the copper mines, the boys’ talent for storytelling becomes known to the village headman, and he begins sending them to a nearby town to watch movies so they can come back and retell the stories to the villagers. They travel to a few small villages, meeting people along the way who will become important to them – Four-Eyes, who has a secret stash of forbidden western literature, the tailor, who travels from village to village to make new clothes for people, and most important of all, the tailor’s daughter, the Little Seamstress.

The Little Seamstress is beautiful, resourceful, and beloved by her father and every young man who crosses her path. The narrator and Luo fall completely under her spell and begin spending more and more time with her, telling her the stories they’ve read in Four-Eyes’ hidden volumes. Beginning with the works of French author Honoré de Balzac, and moving on to Dumas, Flaubert, Hugo, and others, the three young people discover a world previously unknown to them. The Little Seamstress, who has had no education, is not merely enthralled by these stories, she is empowered.

This charming little book serves as a reminder of the power of books to take us outside the drudgery of our daily lives, filling our imaginations with dreams that no longer seem impossible.

COOK


I had no problem finding a vegan Chinese recipe on the Internet. In fact, there are dozens. I chose a vegan version of the popular General Tso’s, which is usually made with chicken. The recipe I found on ohmyveggies.com is for General Tso’s (Not) Chicken Bowls. I’m not a big fan of seitan, so I substituted tofu, and I left off the green onions. It was so good that I expect to make it again one of these days.


GIVE


GlobalGiving.org listed many projects in China, including several providing education to children living in rural areas. Seeing how hungry the Little Seamstress was for education, I wanted to do my part to help give other young people opportunities to learn. According to the Overseas China Education Foundation (OCEF), millions of underprivileged children in rural areas drop out of elementary school, and millions more can’t afford to continue on to secondary school. OCEF is seeking to remedy this problem by offering “1) a financial aid program to help kids in elementary and secondary schools, 2) a scholarship program to support high school students and college freshmen, 3) a library program to ensure rural kids have books to read, and 4) a special quality-of-life enhancement program.” It is hoped that this will help to close the urban-rural educational divide in China.

More information about this program is available at https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/ocef-edu-equity/.


NEXT STOP: COLOMBIA

Sunday, September 24, 2017

CHILE




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I got about four-fifths of the way through the book I’d decided to read for Chile, Isabel Allende’s epic The House of the Spirits, before it occurred to me to take a look at Allende’s biography. Alas, Allende wasn’t born in Chile, but in Peru. Since my self-imposed rules for this project require that the author have been born in the country I’m reading, the book I’d chosen for Chile was suddenly disqualified.

That’s okay, though. I’m thrilled to have read Allende’s magnificent saga about the Trueba family, but I’m also happy to have discovered the book I ended up reading for Chile – Marcela Serrano’s Ten Women.

Nine women arrive by minivan at a meeting center in the suburbs of Santiago, Chile. Watching them as they walk up the path toward the building is their therapist, Natasha, who has decided to bring them all together for the day. The women gather in a room, but Natasha does not join them. Somehow, they know that they are there to share their stories, and in the next nine chapters, each woman talks about her life and the reasons for her sessions with Natasha.

Lost youth, alcoholism, rape, memories of being molested as a child, and dealing with a family member who suffers from depression are some of the reasons why her patients have sought out Natasha. The women come from a variety of different socioeconomic backgrounds because, as one woman says, “I’m here because half of us pay for Natasha’s services while the other half doesn’t. That’s the way she views her profession: the wealthiest pay for the poorest.”

For me, the most poignant story was from Luisa, one of the women whose treatment is subsidized. She is 67 years old, but still trying to come to terms with the disappearance of her husband at the hands of government forces following the military coup in the 1970s. She has stayed in the same place all these years in case he comes back. Luisa tells the other women: “You know the worst thing that can happen to a human being? To disappear. Dying is much better than disappearing.”

At the end of the book, we also learn Natasha’s story, and then the women return to their lives. Ten Women is not so much a novel as it is a collection of character studies held together by the slimmest of plots. Still, I loved getting to know all these women, and I hope other books by this author will be translated into English in the future.

COOK

If you’ve ever looked at labels in the produce department in your local grocery store, you probably already know that Chile has a very robust agricultural industry, and both The House of the Spirits and Ten Women are full of references to the fresh fruits and vegetables grown there – pears, oranges, apples, corn, peaches, and artichokes, to name a few. There aren’t too many mentions of actual Chilean dishes though, so I turned to the Internet once again. When I found this recipe at thespruce.com for pumpkin sopapillas, I knew I wasn’t going to look any further. This is the pumpkin spice time of year, after all! I cheated a little, using canned pumpkin instead of dealing with a fresh one, and I substituted Earth Balance spread for the butter. I consider deep-fat frying to be a total pain in the neck, but it was completely worth it for these amazing goodies. The brown sugar syrup was the perfect accompaniment.
GIVE

GlobalGiving.com is my go-to platform for making donations for this blog, and they had a few projects in Chile listed on their website. After reading about all the problems facing Natasha’s patients in Ten Women, I really wanted to donate to an organization providing services to Chilean women, but none of the GlobalGiving projects pertained to women. So I did the next best thing and chose a project organized by VE Global that helps at-risk children in Santiago. According to the project description, “Chile has one of the strongest economies in Latin America, yet it suffers from a drastic income inequality. This results in vital services for children being vastly unequal; the most at-risk children often served by underfunded and understaffed organizations with little hope of changing their situation.”

VE Global is helping to address this inequity by recruiting and training international volunteers to provide extra support to staff in children’s homes, community centers, and schools. They serve as positive role models for the children and implement our VE Global’s educational programs.




NEXT STOP: CHINA



Wednesday, September 13, 2017

CHAD




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When I started this project, I wasn’t aware that there was a novel available in English written by an author from Chad. The only option I had heard of was a short memoir called Told by Starlight in Chad, by Joseph Brahim Seid. To the extent possible, though, I’m trying to read fiction from each country, so I was happy when two other women who are doing a global reading blog of their own came across a novel, The Plagues of Friendship, by Chadian author Sem Miantoloum Beasnael.

This book is written in the form of a journal kept by the protagonist, Njeleulem, a college-educated man who has worked in leadership positions in a couple of different organizations in both Chad and Ghana. He has come a long way in his professional life and he has a happy home life, with a loving wife and children. Unfortunately, since childhood, he has been bedeviled by his interactions with his friend Ngarbel, whose motives and loyalties are always suspect. The plot centers around Njeleulem’s increasing unhappiness with his treatment by Ngarbel.

I enjoyed reading about the customs of Chad, as well as the issues facing the African continent during the timeframe in which the book was set. At one point, Njeleulem works in Ghana for the fictional Organization for the Promotion of African Language and Culture (OPALC), which has been created in response to the Pan-African movement that came about after colonialism ended. He and Ngarbel discuss the vacuum that was created when the colonists left, and there are numerous references to Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first prime minister after the country gained its independence, who was a strong advocate for African unity. It appears that this was an exciting time for many newly-liberated African countries.

While the book’s plot was not particularly engaging, and the protagonist seemed almost absurdly overwrought about his problems with Ngarbel, it was interesting to read about Njeleulem’s travels in central and western Africa and to listen in on conversations he had with friends about various social and cultural topics. The Plagues of Friendship helped me develop a better understanding of a country about which I’d known very little before.

COOK


The most prominent food item mentioned in The Plagues of Friendship is the pangasso, a kind of donut made from millet. Early in the book, Ngarbel saves a fellow student who is choking from having crammed too many millet donuts in his mouth in order to not have to share them with his classmates. I looked for a good pangasso recipe, but couldn’t find one. Instead, I searched the Internet for vegetarian recipes from Chad and found several. Predictably, I chose one of the easier dishes, courgette with peanuts. “Courgette” is another word for zucchini, and this dish is basically just boiled zucchini mashed with margarine and topped with peanuts, which seem to be ubiquitous in central African cuisine. It turned out to be a tasty and unique side dish. The recipe came from the InternationalCuisine.com website.


GIVE


The GlobalGiving.com website lists four projects in Chad. Three of the projects assist refugees from Darfur who have had to flee their native Sudan. I wanted a project to help the people of Chad themselves, so I chose the fourth project, which offers life skills and peer education to Chadian youth. The project is administered by the International Blue Cross and seeks to give vulnerable youth “the skills and knowledge to make informed decisions about alcohol and drugs and associated risks, including the transmission of HIV/AIDs.” The hope is that [t]eaching the ability to make informed decisions empowers youth to be strong leaders and role models within their community.” More information about this project is available at https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/life-skills-peer-education-africa/.



NEXT STOP: CHILE

Thursday, August 31, 2017

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC





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As was the case with the book I chose last week for Cape Verde, there are very few books from the Central African Republic that have been translated into English. The book that I and other bloggers who are reading the world have found for this country is Daba’s Travels from Ouadda to Bangui, by Pierre Makombo Bamboté.

This book is geared more to children than adults, maybe in the eight to twelve-year-old range, and tells the story of Daba’s idyllic life growing up in the Central African Republic. According to the book’s dedication, it’s based on the author’s own childhood. It begins in the village of Ouadda, where Daba lives a happy life with his parents. His father supports the family by gathering rubber, honey, and beeswax, and by growing cotton.

The action soon moves to the town of Bambari, about 125 miles away, where Daba is sent to attend boarding school. He does well in school, spends time in other villages during school breaks, and acquires a pen-pal from Marseilles named Guy. When Guy wins a trip to Africa in a contest, he, Daba, and a few other of Daba’s fellow students spend a summer teaching people in a nearby village how to read and write. As the summer ends and Guy returns to Marseilles, Daba and his friends find out they’ve been awarded scholarships to attend school in France.

The book has no plot to speak of – it’s just an account of Daba’s childhood. Published in 1970, those happy-go-lucky days are likely a thing of the past for anyone currently living in the Central African Republic, which has endured many years of civil war in the recent past. It has been called the worst country in the world for young people, and it is also the unhealthiest country, according to researchers at the University of Seattle.

Considering the dire condition in which the Central African Republic currently exists, Daba’s Travels from Ouadda to Bangui serves as a sad reminder of the country’s good old days. The author is fortunate to have grown up there when he did.


COOK

Many of the meals Bamboté wrote about in Daba’s Travels from Ouadda to Bangui were heavily meat-based, and hunting was a favorite pastime in the villages Daba visited. Food crops and fruit trees were mentioned too, however – manioc, corn, papayas, mangos, guavas, oranges, groundnuts (peanuts), and bananas. In fact, when Daba goes away to boarding school, he often skips the school meals and “lived mostly off the fruit he had gathered from the guava and papaya trees where he did his homework.”

Of all the vegan or veganizable recipes I found online for the Central African Republic, the one that appealed to me the most was the one for this sweet peanut butter rice dish that I found on the Global Table Adventure website. Apparently, peanut butter is a staple of Central African Republic cuisine. This dish could not have been any more simple to make, and it was really good. I had it for breakfast, and it was a great way to start the day!


GIVE

There were no projects listed for the Central African Republic on the GlobalGiving website, so I had to do a little digging to find an organization for my donation to this country. I discovered Water for Good, which is working to bring clean water to the people of the Central African Republic through the drilling, servicing, and rehabilitating of wells. This organization works with local water businesses in order to ensure that the wells will be sustainable in the long-term. More information about Water for Good is available at https://waterforgood.org/.

After I’d made my donation, I came across a very recent article on UNICEF’s website about the vast numbers of people from the Central African Republic who are currently fleeing the violence caused by armed groups that control much of the country. According to the article, “These past months and weeks have seen horrendous reports on children’s rights violations. Precise numbers are impossible to know but we know for a fact that children have been killed; there have been incidents of sexual violence, and that recruitment into armed groups is happening. But there are less direct violations with lasting consequences – having to flee or take refuge in the bush; having no education or health care.” For that reason, I decided to also make a donation to UNICEF to help the children of this troubled country.



NEXT STOP: CHAD



Friday, August 25, 2017

CAPE VERDE




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One of the joys of this global reading project is learning about countries I’ve never had occasion to think about before. With a country like Cape Verde, this meant searching my desktop globe to find out where in the world it is. As it turns out, Cape Verde is a small group of islands located off the western coast of Africa, just across from Senegal and Mauritania. It was formerly a colony of Portugal, so the official language is Portuguese. Trying to find a novel from Cape Verde that’s been translated from Portuguese into English is difficult, so as far as I know, pretty much everyone who has embarked on a project like this one ends up reading The Last Will and Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo, by Germano Almeida.

This book tells the story of Napumoceno da Silva Araújo, who has just died at a ripe old age and left a 387-page will that must be read aloud by a notary to the assembled witnesses and hopeful beneficiaries. Senhor da Silva Araújo, who is referred to throughout the book as Sr. Napumoceno, has always had a reputation as a successful businessman, straightlaced in both his personal and professional life. His nephew Carlos, assuming that he will inherit Sr. Napumoceno’s entire estate, takes great pains to plan the funeral exactly the way his uncle has requested.

However, the bulk of the estate has been left, not to Carlos, but to Sr. Napumoceno’s daughter, who had been born out-of-wedlock twenty-five years earlier. Her existence was a big surprise to everyone attending the reading of the will, because “who would ever have dreamed that Napumoceno da Silva Araújo would be capable of taking advantage of the days his cleaning woman came to the office to engage in a little hanky-panky, in the corners of the room and on top of the desk…”.

Sr. Napumoceno’s will, as well as several boxes of notebooks in which he has written, provide a wealth of information about the man he really was. We learn of his accidental successes in business, his dabbling in philanthropy and politics, and his social awkwardness. His daughter, Maria da Graça, attempts to find a woman named Adélia, who may have been the great love of Sr. Napumoceno’s life. Maria’s hope is that Adélia “could shed light on just who that man really was who had sired her on an office desk.”

In the end, both Maria and the reader come to know Sr. Napumoceno through his will and his other writings, which strip away almost every layer of the person he believed himself to be.

COOK

Food didn’t play a big role in The Last Will and Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo, and the food that was mentioned wasn’t vegan. So I went to Google and found a dish called cachupa that’s famous in the islands of Cape Verde. Cachupa is a stew made with corn or hominy, beans, potatoes, and other vegetables. It usually contains meat or fish, but I found a vegan recipe on the Global Table Adventure website. Mine turned out to be more of a soup than a stew, which means I probably should have cooked it a little longer, but it was dinnertime and I was hungry. The only seasoning the recipe calls for is paprika, but I thought it needed salt, so I added some to the pot. It was a tasty and satisfying dish, although more suited to winter than summer.



GIVE

There were no projects listed for Cape Verde on the GlobalGiving website, so I took to Google to see what I could find. What I found was the Turtle Foundation. Apparently, Cape Verde has the third largest population of nesting loggerhead turtles in the world, but they are in danger from poachers and from problems associated with hotel construction to bring more tourism to the islands. Turtle Foundation has sent in monitors and set up patrols to help stop the slaughter of the turtles. They are also collecting data and tagging turtles for further study. More information about Turtle Foundation’s Project Cape Verde is available at https://www.turtle-foundation.org/en/project-cape-verde/.



NEXT STOP: CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC

Sunday, August 20, 2017

CANADA




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If you enter the term “Canadian novelist” into Google’s search engine, a seemingly endless number of names come up, making it very difficult to narrow down the choices to just one book for Canada. I’m not quite sure how I picked Lauren B. Davis’ Our Daily Bread from the myriad books that were available to me. However, it turned out to be a timely, if sobering, selection, addressing such topical themes as bullying and isolation, as well as the tendency to ignore problems confronting other people if you can somehow convince yourself that the “otherness” in those people make them less deserving of your help.

The book is set in the fictional town of Gideon and on the mountain, known as North Mountain, nearby. North Mountain is home to the Erskine clan, who have lived there for generations. In the world of the Erskines, the children are savagely abused -- physically, psychologically, and sexually -- but they are taught from birth that “Erskines don’t talk and Erskines don’t leave.” While the Erskines are fictional, I was horrified to learn in the book’s acknowledgements that they are based on a real-life family, the Goler clan of the eastern Canada province of Nova Scotia.

The townspeople of Gideon stay away from the North Mountain people, for the most part, although some drive up under cover of darkness to buy the product of the Erskines’ newly-established meth lab, and some are complicit in the abuse of the children. Most of the “good” people of Gideon, though, are content to simply look down their noses at the North Mountain people.

There are three unlikely heroes in the book, whose lives intersect at a time when the children of North Mountain need help the most. Albert Erskine lives on North Mountain in the Erskine compound, but at twenty-two years of age, is no longer subject to the same abuse as the Erskine children, and he hasn’t adopted the unspeakable habits of the older Erskines. Tom Evans has lived in Gideon his whole life and is a salt-of-the-earth kind of guy. Many years earlier, he married a much younger woman whom he met in New York, and it seems the whole town knows things about her that his love blinds him to, making him a frequent topic of gossip. Dorothy Carlisle is my favorite character, a widow who owns an antique shop and is friendly, but generally doesn’t involve herself overly much in the lives of the people in town. By the end of the book, all three of these characters discover inner reserves of strength and purpose that they didn’t know they possessed.

The subject matter could have made it impossible to stomach Our Daily Bread, but the author’s skillful storytelling drew me in. It’s a reminder that evil can’t be swept under the rug, no matter how much we’d like to pretend it doesn’t exist.

COOK

Canada is just across the northern border of the United States, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Canadians eat many of the same things that people in the U.S. do. The characters in Our Daily Bread ate things like burgers and grilled cheese sandwiches, and I didn’t see any mention of dishes that were distinctively Canadian. So I turned to Google and found a recipe for Canadian Maple Pie on the UnconventionalBaker.com website. How delicious does that sound?

Really delicious, as it turns out! The recipe is already vegan (and gluten-free, for that matter), so no substitutions were needed. The ingredients listed are for a very small pie, though, so if you intend to share it and not just eat it all yourself, you’ll need to triple the ingredients for a regular-sized pie.



GIVE

Since the abuse of children was the great evil in Our Daily Bread, I looked on the GlobalGiving website for a project or organization that would benefit children. I found the Boys & Girls Clubs of Canada, which provides “a safe, supportive place where Canadian children and youth can go to experience new opportunities, overcome barriers, build positive relationships and develop confidence and skills for life.” Homework help, healthy meals, and a safe space are just a few of the benefits the Boys & Girls Clubs of Canada offer. More information about this organization is available at https://www.bgccan.com/en/.



NEXT STOP: CAPE VERDE