Saturday, May 26, 2018



To the extent possible, I’m reading novels for this project. Merriam-Webster defines a novel as “an invented prose narrative that is usually long and complex and deals especially with human experience through a usually connected sequence of events.” In reading novels for this blog, I’m attempting to understand how people in other countries perceive the human experience from the standpoint of their cultural and geographical realities.

However, in many countries, it’s not possible to find a novel that’s been translated into English. For those countries, I just have to take whatever translated book I can get. With respect to East Timor, also known as Timor-Leste, the book that I could get was a memoir by Luís Cardoso, The Crossing: A Story of East Timor.

The Crossing covers a crucial time in East Timor’s history. This island nation, situated between Indonesia and Australia, was a Portuguese colony for four centuries, enjoyed a brief period of independence following Portugal’s Carnation Revolution in the mid-1970s, but was then invaded by Indonesia and endured more than two decades of violent occupation by that country before finally becoming a sovereign state.

Cardoso’s memoir encompasses all of these changes to the country’s political landscape. He was born in 1958, at a time when Portugal still ruled the Timorese islands. Cardoso’s father was a nurse, and the family traveled to wherever his father’s services were needed. It was very important to his father that Cardoso be properly educated, so when Cardoso was still a young boy, he was sent to live with relatives on another island to begin his formal schooling at a Catholic mission. His grandfather took it upon himself to introduce Cardoso to the spiritual tradition of his ancestors. “He wanted me to know my own nature before seeing it forever submerged in the Christian world.”

Cardoso’s education proceeded in fits and starts. At one point, his father decided he should be a priest and sent him off to the seminary, even though the head of the school said he was “too fond of life to be of any use to God.” When the seminary didn’t work out for him, he decided to become a good enough student at the next school he attended to be awarded a scholarship to study in Portugal. He did, indeed, earn a scholarship, and he left East Timor for Lisbon just ahead of the turmoil that followed the Indonesian invasion.

In Lisbon, Cardoso met fellow Timorese refugees from the war in their homeland and became part of a cultural group that shared Timorese song, dance, and poetry with the people of Portugal. As the book draws to a close, Cardoso’s parents arrived in Lisbon, and he was forced to deal with the toll the war had taken on his father.

At times I found the narrative confusing, especially when it veered into political territory and got into the upheaval occurring in both East Timor and Portugal. But for most of the book, The Crossing was a look back at the author’s childhood in what must have seemed to him a simpler, more idyllic time.


The Crossing didn’t mention any specific Timorese dishes, but there were occasional references to the produce that is grown there, such as strawberries, persimmons, mangoes, rice, maize, cassava, tea, coffee, and cacao. It wasn’t difficult to find a vegan Timorese recipe online. Batar da’an is a simple dish made of butternut squash, corn, and kidney beans. I found the recipe on the Catholic Relief Services Rice Bowl website, which suggests preparing healthy, meatless recipes from around the world for Lent. Somehow, making a recipe recommended for Lent by a Catholic organization seemed appropriate, considering all the time Cardoso spent in Catholic schools. This was a quick, easy, and healthy recipe, and I enjoyed it.


GlobalGiving listed four projects for East Timor, and they all sounded worthy. In the end, I picked one that is helping to revive traditional carving, weaving, and pottery skills in poverty-stricken rural communities and turning them into income-generating opportunities. Cardoso’s recollection about his grandfather schooling him in the spiritual tradition of his ancestors made this particular project very appealing to me, as it celebrates the local heritage. According to the description on the website, “[t]his project is part of our ‘Turning Traditions into Livelihoods’ program - an initiative that gives Timorese rural communities a chance to generate income and build a livelihood using their culture, identity and experience.” More information about this project is available at


Monday, May 14, 2018



I had intended to read In the Time of the Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez, for my book about the Dominican Republic. When I looked up her biography, however, I discovered that she was born in the United States, so I’ll have to save that book for reading outside of this project. Instead, I turned to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz, a book for which the author won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008.

The book follows the life of Oscar de León, who, along with his older sister Lola, is being raised by their single mother Beli in Paterson, New Jersey. Beli had fled the Dominican Republic for the United States in her teens to avoid being killed by goons hired by the wife of a man she was having an affair with. She begins a relationship with a man she meets on the plane on the way to the U.S., and from that relationship, Lola and Oscar are born. Their father isn’t in the picture for long, though, and he doesn’t make much of an appearance in the book.

For the most part, the story is told by a narrator who remains unknown until about halfway through the book, at which point he takes on a fairly prominent role. He appears to be intimately acquainted with the de León family, and from him we learn that Oscar is obese, unattractive, and obsessed with science fiction and fantasy books and movies. He is also desperate to have a girlfriend, which is unlikely to happen because he is obese, unattractive, and obsessed with science fiction and fantasy. He is bullied throughout high school and college, and the few girls he does interact with never want to be anything but friends. He attempts suicide twice, unsuccessfully, then has a life-changing experience during a trip to the Dominican Republic with his family.

While most of the book is about Oscar, there are also chapters about his sister, his mother, and his grandfather. In these chapters we learn, among other things, about the bad times in the Dominican Republic during the thirty-one-year dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. His was a particularly brutal regime, in which thousands of people were killed or imprisoned, and women were in constant fear of coming to Trujillo’s attention and being forced to have sex with him. The brutality and sexual appetite of Trujillo had brought about the downfall of Oscar’s mother’s once-prominent family, a family now thought by some to be cursed.

It took me some time to get into this book, partly because the author relies heavily on slang, in both English and Spanish, that’s not familiar to me and which I found distracting. The book is also kind of depressing, as the plot doesn’t contain many happy moments, and learning about the Trujillo dictatorship was horrifying. As I continued to read, however, I became invested in the lives of the characters and hoped the curse – or the fukú, as they called it – wasn’t real. But as the narrator says in the opening pages, “It’s perfectly fine if you don’t believe in the ‘superstitions.’ In fact, it’s better than fine – it’s perfect. Because no matter what you believe, fukú believes in you.”


The dish I chose to make for the Dominican Republic is unrelated to anything in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It’s a recipe for stewed red beans (habichuelas rojas guisadas) I found on the Dominican Flavor website, which, unfortunately, was suspended shortly after I made the dish. The beans were really good, though, and I don’t want you to miss out on making them, so since I can’t provide you with a link to the recipe, I’m copying it down below, to the best of my recollection:


1 lb. dried red beans
2 T. olive oil

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 tsp. salt

2 stalks celery, chopped

1 onion, chopped

1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped

1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped

2 green habanero peppers, seeded and chopped

1 cup acorn squash, peeled and cubed

1 cup cilantro, chopped

2 T. tomato paste

1 tsp. oregano

Salt and pepper to taste


Rinse the beans and soak them overnight in water that covers them by about three inches.

In a large pot, sauté the minced garlic in the olive oil, add the teaspoon of salt, and then add the beans and the water they soaked in. Bring them to boiling and then turn the heat down to medium high, half cover the pot with a lid, and let the beans cook for about an hour.

At the end of the hour, add all the vegetables to the pot. Mix the tomato paste with a little of the bean water and then add it to the pot, along with the oregano. Half cover the pot again with the lid, and let the beans cook for another hour.

If the beans start to dry out at any point along the way, add more water. When the beans are soft, but not mushy, taste them and add salt and pepper as needed. Serve the beans over white rice.


Even though I didn’t read In the Time of the Butterflies for this blog post, I read about it in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It’s about the Mirabal sisters, three women who actively opposed the Trujillo regime and became martyrs to the cause when they were assassinated in 1960. They called themselves “las mariposas” – the butterflies -- which is why I chose the Mariposa Center for Girls to receive my donation for the Dominican Republic. The purpose of this project, which I found on the GlobalGiving website, is to create a center where “impoverished Haitian and Dominican girls come to engage in sports, receive academic tutoring, have access to libraries and computers, receive job and life skills training and health and wellness care.” More information about the Mariposa Center for Girls is available at


Sunday, April 29, 2018



This blog post is about Dominica, a small island in the Caribbean, not to be confused with the Dominican Republic, which shares a larger island in the Caribbean with the country of Haiti. Dominica was a European colony, first governed by France and then by Great Britain, from the late 1600s until 1978, when it gained its independence.

The book I read for this post, The Orchid House, was written by Phyllis Shand Allfrey, whose family had been among the earliest colonizers of Dominica. It’s a semiautobiographical novel about a British family that has lived on the island for generations. The father (The Master) in The Orchid House has returned from World War II with what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. There are three sisters who have all moved away from the island, with the middle sister, Joan, being the one who most closely resembles the author. And there is the sisters’ old nurse, a black woman named Lally, which was also the name of the author’s nurse when she was growing up.

Lally is the narrator of the book, which opens with the mother of the three sisters (Madam) visiting Lally in the one-room house where she has lived since she retired from taking care of the sisters. They share some wine and Madam tells Lally that the sisters are all coming for a visit. Two of the sisters, Stella and Joan, each have a small child who will be coming with them, and Madam asks Lally to come out of retirement to take care of the children while they’re on the island. Lally is fiercely loyal to the family, and we see both their good and bad character traits through her loving eyes.

Both Stella and Joan married men without much money, and the family’s economic situation on the island has deteriorated over the years. The only thing keeping the family afloat is the fact that the youngest of the three sisters, Natalie, married a rich man who died not too long after the wedding. The biggest crisis facing the family is the narcotic cigarettes that the Master has smoked ever since he returned from the war. The rest of the family both hates and fears the man, Mr. Lilipoulala, who sails to the island periodically to bring him his supply of these drugs.

There is also a friend from their childhood, Andrew, who complicates the sisters’ return home. He has developed a life-threatening illness, which means he rarely leaves the house. He lives with and is supported by Cornélie, who is a cousin of the sisters, being the daughter of their womanizing uncle and a black seamstress, who were never married. Each of the sisters spends time with Andrew upon their return to the island, causing a great deal of consternation for Cornélie.

One of the more interesting aspects of this book, from my point of view, is the introduction written by Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, professor of Hispanic studies at Vassar College. This introduction helped provide a context for the novel itself by giving the reader a look into the life of the book’s author. Much like the character of Joan in The Orchid House, Allfrey was a social activist committed to improving the lives of people on the lower end of the economic ladder. While Joan tried to organize the jobless people on the island to fight for unemployment benefits in the novel, Allfrey founded the Dominica Labour Party and became the Minister of Labour and Social Affairs in real life.

All in all, this short novel kept me entertained and provided a unique perspective on a country about which I knew nothing before I embarked on this project.


The author didn’t spend much time talking about food in this book, so I went to the Internet to find a suitable recipe from Dominica. I found one that featured bananas, which were mentioned during a particularly fateful night in the novel’s plot. A storm was pounding the island, and Lally observed that “[m]eanwhile the wind had come up, and I thought me of how next day the banana fields would look like a battlefield of wounded soldiers.”

The recipe I made is for sunny days, not stormy ones. These frozen carob bananas turned out to be one of the best things I’ve made since I started this blog, and they will be a perfect treat to make again during the scorching Sacramento summer. I found the recipe on a website called Caribbean Choice. I couldn’t find the raw carob powder the recipe called for, but I found roasted carob powder, which worked just fine. They were super-easy to make, and I highly recommend them!


There are no projects for Dominica currently listed on GlobalGiving’s website, but it wasn’t hard to find a worthy cause to support on the Internet. Dominica was devastated by Hurricane Maria last September and is still trying to recover. The Dominica Hurricane Relief Fund is collecting donations “to support the people of Dominica with basic materials such as temporary roofing, blankets, and non-perishable food through aid relief. Our goal is alleviating the plight Dominicans who have been left with nothing.” More information about the Dominica Hurricane Relief Fund can be found at


Monday, April 16, 2018



Quick – tell me everything you know about Djibouti! You may be better informed than I am, but about the only thing I knew for sure before this week’s reading was that Djibouti is in Africa. One thing I love about this project, though, is that it’s filling in so many holes in my knowledge base. Reading Abdourahman A. Waberi’s Passage of Tears taught me about this tiny country’s history and culture, as well as its strategic importance to countries in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and even to the United States, which set up a military base in Djibouti in 2001.

Djibouti, a country about the size of Vermont, is on the east coast of the African continent, bordered by Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia. What surprised me, however, when looking at the map, was Djibouti’s close proximity to the Middle Eastern country of Yemen, which is a scant eighteen miles away. The two countries are separated by a strait called the Bab-el-Mandeb (“Gate of Tears”). The distance is so small that plans have been discussed to build a bridge connecting Djibouti and Yemen.

The protagonist in Passage of Tears, Djib (short for Djibril), was born and raised in Djibouti, but left behind his parents and twin brother Djamal fifteen years ago to move to Montreal, Canada. He works for an economic intelligence firm and is back in Djibouti to analyze the country for a company interested in its uranium potential. According to Djib, “My mission consists in feeling out the temperature on the ground, making sure the country is secure, the situation stable and the terrorists under control.” He feels confident in his ability to put together the necessary reports, but the longer he’s in Djibouti, the more the country seems to resurrect old memories and fears.

Woven in between the chapters narrated by Djib are the writings of a condemned inmate in a nearby prison. This inmate is the scribe for a man he refers to as his venerable Master, and they are both facing execution because of their involvement with an Islamic terrorist organization called the New Way. The inmate knows everything about Djib’s movements from the moment he arrives in Djibouti, and he is extremely critical of Djib’s life in the Western world. His writings become increasingly ominous the longer Djib remains in Djibouti.

In addition to the book’s obvious themes, such as the clashes between cultures and the difficulty in going home after a long absence, Passage of Tears invokes the work of German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin throughout. Djib appreciates the work of Benjamin because of “his encyclopedic mind, his intuitive method and, above all, by his conception of history, which was not theoretical or arid in the least.” The condemned inmate discovers the story of Benjamin, who spent years on the run from the Nazis before finally committing suicide, in an old account left behind by a previous inmate. It takes on a special meaning for him: “What is this book if not a homage to the human spirit and its immense aura?”

Passage of Tears held my interest and taught me things I never knew. What more can one ask of a book?


There wasn’t much mention of food in Passage of Tears. In one recollection from his childhood, Djib talks of eating “a paper cone full of peanuts or hot spicy fritters.” I did an Internet search for recipes from Djibouti and found one for fritters, although not the hot spicy variety. The recipe, from, was for banana fritters. It seemed like they would be simple enough to make, with only a few ingredients and a minimum of preparation and cooking time required. The picture that accompanied the recipe showed something that looked like a stack of pancakes, but that’s not how my fritters turned out. Mine were kind of gooey on the inside, and if I were to make this recipe again, I’d try putting all the ingredients in the blender to make a smoother fritter. You win some, you lose some.

GIVE doesn’t have any projects in Djibouti, so I had to search the Internet for another option. It wasn’t easy because, even though many organizations have projects in Djibouti, they are generally operating throughout Africa and it’s not possible to designate my donation specifically for Djibouti. I finally found a GoFundMe project to raise funds for a school serving 150 homeless children in Djibouti. More information about this project can be found at


Friday, April 6, 2018



I love thrillers and suspense novels, but somehow, I managed to miss Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow when it was an international bestseller back in the 1990s. When I was looking for a book to read from Denmark for this project, it seemed like the perfect choice.

Smilla Jasperson is a scientist who is originally from Greenland, but is living in Copenhagen. In the same apartment building lives a young boy, Isaiah, who is also from Greenland, and his alcoholic mother. Smilla’s not really into children, but since Isaiah’s mother is rarely in any condition to care for him, Smilla ends up spending more and more time with him. When she comes home one day and discovers that he has fallen off the roof and is lying dead in the snow, she doesn’t believe it was an accident. Feeling that she owes it to Isaiah, she undertakes her own investigation to figure out why he was on the roof and what caused him to fall off.

Ice and snow play a major role in the plot, and these are elements Smilla has a sixth sense about, not merely because of her scientific studies about glaciers and seawater ice, but because of her childhood experiences in Greenland with her mother, an Inuit. She also has an uncanny gift for navigation. Smilla will have to call upon all of her knowledge and skills as she seeks the truth about Isaiah’s death. At times, I found the scientific discussions to be tedious, but the plot and the characters kept me interested in spite of those technical interludes.

I was especially interested to learn about the relationship between Denmark and its former colony, Greenland. Greenlanders who live in Denmark are mostly Inuit people, and they are very different in both appearance and culture, from the Danes. Friction resulting from these differences figures into the plot of Smilla’s Sense of Snow, in large part because Smilla herself is both Inuit and Danish.

This was a very satisfying book, with both a gripping plot and a wealth of information about things I hadn’t known before, and I’d be interested in reading more works by this author.


I had hoped to make a type of Danish cookie called spekulaas for this blog post, since a woman that Smilla interviews about Isaiah’s disappearance is baking them during Smilla’s visit. I found a recipe for a vegan version, but the recipe’s creator seemed to have left out some information I needed. Instead, I found a recipe for vegan Danish butter cookies on a blog called Wallflower Kitchen, and boy, are they good! A few notes about the recipe:

1.       The measurements are in grams, so I converted them to cups: 7/8 cup vegan butter; 1 cup   
        powdered sugar plus a little bit; and 2-1/2 cups flour.

2.       The temperature in the recipe is given in degrees centigrade. For Fahrenheit, the correct  
        temperature is 350 degrees.

3.       Corn flour, in this recipe, refers to cornstarch.

4.       I didn’t have a cookie press, so I just rolled out the dough and used cookie cutters.

I am never making these cookies again because they are so good that I can’t seem to stop stuffing them in my mouth. If you decide to make them, consider yourself warned!


GlobalGiving had only one project listed for Denmark, but it turned out to be the perfect one to go with the book I read for this post. Blue Cross Denmark offers a program that provides support to the children of alcoholics, such as little Isaiah in Smilla’s Sense of Snow. According to the project description, “[o]ne in ten Danish children is negatively affected by parental alcohol consumption, and at least 122,000 Danish children grow up in families with outright abuse.” Two community centers operated by Blue Cross Denmark provide children with the opportunity to spend their free time in a safe environment, where they can receive counseling or talk with other children who are experiencing similar situations. More information about this project is available at


Thursday, March 22, 2018



Many years ago, I read Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and loved it. The characters, the plot, and Kundera’s beautiful writing made a lasting impression on me. That made it easy to decide which Czech Republic author I’d read for this week’s blog post. Kundera has written a few more books since The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and the one I chose is Ignorance.

The book tells the story of people who fled the country then known as Czechoslovakia after the communists took over during a Soviet-led invasion. First there is Irena who, along with her husband Martin, settles in Paris. They build a life for themselves and their two daughters. But Martin develops a terminal illness and dies, leaving Irena to navigate life in Paris and care for their daughters on her own. Then there is Josef, who moves to Denmark after he leaves Czechoslovakia. He marries and has a good life as a veterinarian, but his spouse also dies.

Irena and Josef cross paths when they each decide to visit their homeland after the fall of communism. Irena sees Josef at the airport and remembers having met him at a bar in Prague many years ago, a meeting that was very memorable to her. She approaches Josef and reminds him of their previous encounter, and although he plays along, he has no recollection of ever having met her. Nevertheless, they agree to meet up at some point while they’re both in Prague.

As they visit with their respective friends and relatives over the next few days, they experience the discomfort one feels upon returning to a place that used to be familiar and finding that it’s changed, or maybe it’s just that they themselves have changed. Irena’s old friends show no interest in what she’s been doing while she’s been away. They have no frame of reference for the life she’s lived in Paris, so they’re only interested in the person she was before she left. Josef visits his mother’s grave and is surprised to see graves for many relatives he didn’t know had died. He realizes it’s because he had ceased to exist to those he left behind, so they felt no obligation to stay in touch with him.

Irena and Josef finally arrange their rendezvous, and they share the feelings of alienation they’ve had since their return to Prague. They each have their own expectations about what they want from this meeting, but having had similar experiences may not be enough to overcome their lack of a shared history.

Kundera interweaves mentions of The Odyssey into the plot, which serve to amplify the book’s themes of exile and alienation. After such a long time away, maybe one really can’t go home again.


I don’t recall seeing any Czech food mentions or descriptions while reading Ignorance, so I took to the Internet to find some vegan Czech recipes. I found one on the Czech Vegan (in America) blog that sounded perfect : vegan Czech goulash with bread dumplings. The goulash is made using Gardein Beefless Tips and a variety of spices (which gave me an opportunity to visit one of my favorite Sacramento shops – the Allspicery). I really liked the goulash and might actually make it again in the future.

The bread dumplings were another story. For starters, the recipe made way more dough than I needed, so if you decide to try it, I would recommend cutting the recipe in half. Also, I didn’t like boiling the dough in loaves, as opposed to dropping spoonfuls into the boiling water, which would have taken less time to cook and ensured that the dumplings were done all the way through. They turned out okay, but I probably won’t make them again.


There was only one project listed on GlobalGiving for the Czech Republic, but it was a good one. If you’ve ever spent time as a patient in a hospital, you know how boring it can be and how slowly the time passes. An organization called Lekorice combats that problem by sending volunteers into Thomayers Hospital in Prague with games, projects, and even therapy animals to help keep the patients happy and not fretting about their illnesses. They visit approximately 3,000 patients a year, mostly children or the elderly, and they also offer art programs, lectures, and performances. More information about this project, “In hospital with Licorice,” is available at


Thursday, March 15, 2018



As Census, by Panos Ioannides, opens, a married couple picks up a hitchhiker while on their way to visit a friend in the small Cypriot village of Spilia. The husband is a 35-year-old war correspondent, who has been deeply affected by his experiences during his most recent assignment abroad, but he refuses to tell anyone what’s troubling him. His 25-year-old wife is hiding a dark secret of her own. The young man they pick up, a musician from the Greek island of Patmos, is traveling to visit artist friends in Spilia. The lives of all of these characters will become intertwined in numerous ways.

The names of the characters alert the reader to the fact that the book’s plot will involve biblical themes. The husband’s name is Joseph, the wife is Maria, the guitarist from Patmos is Michael, and the couple he is going to visit are the Archangielsks. There will be a pregnancy, a birth, a death, a disappearance and a return. I have to say, though, that it wasn’t entirely clear to me what message the author was trying to convey.

Having said that, I enjoyed reading about life in this little Cypriot village. Descriptions of the art the Archangielsks are restoring in a local chapel, long conversations over a bounty of food and drink, and long walks in the snow paint a pretty picture of an idyllic way of life. Underneath the beauty, though, is a cauldron of swirling unrest: a meddling priest, a distrust of strangers, unease over a missing friend, and the crumbling relationship between Joseph and Maria. Now that I think of it, that could describe small towns anywhere.

Census begins in the realm of the ordinary, but turns to the metaphysical as the story progresses. I tend to be more down-to-earth and pragmatic myself, but for those who enjoy more transcendental themes, this book may be for you.


There were many dishes in Census that were vegan or could have been made vegan. Trahana soup made with bulgur, flaounas (pastries traditionally made for Easter), and an assortment of small dishes called a meze were all eaten by characters in the book. Even before I started reading, though, I had looked for Cypriot recipes on the International Vegetarian Union website and found one that I really wanted to try, an olive rosemary flatbread. I couldn’t find green Kalamata olives, so I used black Kalamatas instead, and since I really don’t like onions, I substituted the less offensive leek for the onion. The bread turned out tasty, but pretty dry. I don’t think the recipe called for enough liquid, so if I were to make it again, I’d probably add another one-fourth to one-half cup of water or olive oil.


GlobalGiving doesn’t have any projects in Cyprus, so I searched the Internet to see what I could find on other websites. Since cancer plays a big role in the plot of Census, it seemed fitting to donate to TULIPS TRNC and the Help Those with Cancer Association. TULIPS offers a wide variety of services to those suffering from cancer, and was instrumental in setting up the oncology ward at Lefkoşa State Hospital. More information about TULIPS TRNC is available at