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


Sunday, February 25, 2018



The setting for the book I chose for Cuba, Dancing to “Almendra,” by Mayra Montero, is the Cuba I recall from watching the movie The Godfather: Part II.  Casinos, extravagant entertainment, mafiosi, and corruption took center stage, while Castro’s revolution percolated in the background.
The book’s protagonist is a 22-year-old reporter named Joaquin Porrata, who is frustrated at being assigned to the entertainment beat when what he really wants to do is cover the mob bosses who have converged on Havana. He thinks he has found his chance when an employee at the Havana Zoo tells him that the escape and subsequent death of the zoo’s hippopotamus had been a warning to mobster Umberto Anastasia. Unfortunately, the message arrived too late, as Anastasia had been killed in a New York barbershop that same day.
Joaquin changes newspapers in order to be allowed to write about the mob, and his life becomes both more exciting and more dangerous. He develops an infatuation for a one-armed woman who may or may not have been the mistress of Mafia boss Santo Trafficante, gets beaten up by mob enforcers twice, and crosses paths with the American actor George Raft, part owner of the Capri hotel and casino.
The title of the book refers to a popular Cuban song called “Almendra.” It takes on significance for Joaquin when, as a teenager, he sees the mother of his best friend, a woman he’s had a crush on since childhood, dancing to “Almendra” with a man who figures prominently in the book.
I enjoyed learning more about the years and events leading up to the Cuban revolution. Now, though, I’d be interested in reading a novel by a Cuban author about life in Cuba since the revolution. Any suggestions?


When one of the early chapters in “Dancing to Almendra described the meal of pink flamingos, turtles, crabs, and oysters that was being prepared for a group of mob bosses, I assumed I wouldn’t find any inspiration for a vegan dish in the book. Turns out I was wrong. On New Year’s Eve, Joaquin has dinner at the home of one-armed Yolanda, and she gives him white rice and black beans. I found a Vegetarian Times recipe for Cuban-style black beans with rice and plantains that looked pretty good, so I gave it a try. The recipe called for instant brown rice instead of white rice, and I added a little dollop of vegan sour cream for garnish. It was a very satisfying meal, and the sautéed plantains served on top of the beans were a nice touch.


GlobalGiving’s website listed two projects for Cuba, both offering relief to Cubans affected by last year’s Hurricane Irma. I chose the project administered by Global Links, which is working to “deliver medical equipment and supplies that will support health services and hospitals damaged by Hurricane Irma.” These resources will help, not only in the short-term, but will “work to the strengthen the public health system to improve long term sustainability.” More information about Global Links’ Hurricane Irma relief work in Cuba is available at


Tuesday, February 20, 2018


I just returned from a trip to Medellin, Colombia, where my husband Phil and I went to visit our son and his family and celebrate the first birthday of our little grandson.

When I wrote my original blog post about Colombia, I donated to the E2E Foundation for the “Give” portion of the article. The E2E Foundation has a few different projects in Medellin, but the one that I chose was the Huertas Urbanas, which helps to create urban gardens in the impoverished Comuna 8 neighborhood. When I was planning my trip to Medellin, I asked Miranda at GlobalGiving whether it might be possible for me to visit the garden project. She kindly connected me with the good people at the E2E Foundation and I arranged to see some of the Comuna 8 gardens.

An enthusiastic volunteer named Stephanie met Phil and I at the San Antonio metro station and we took a light-rail train to Comuna 8. Our first stop was a garden called “Cerro de los Valores,” or “Hill of Values.” Stephanie called this a training garden that was started by members of the community and is now receiving assistance from the E2E Foundation. It was a gorgeous garden, full of colorful sculptures and both ornamental and edible plants. I would have loved to have wandered through the entire plot, but we had another stop to make.

The second stop was so much fun! We went to a local school, Vida para Todos, to do some gardening with a group of 11th grade students. Stephanie had a lively discussion with them and their wonderful teacher Jose about the hows and whys of planting vegetables, and then they got started on the school’s garden plot. After a little time spent preparing the soil and pulling weeds, Stephanie handed out zucchini seeds for the students to sow. I’m hoping to see pictures of thriving zucchini plants in the not-too-distant future!

The students could not have been any more delightful, even though Phil and I couldn’t speak much Spanish and the students didn’t know much English. The girls wanted before and after pictures of the group, one while they were still clean and one showing their dirty hands after working in the garden.

By encouraging the planting of vegetable gardens at schools and in the community, the E2E Foundation is hopeful that the people of Comuna 8 will be able to not only feed their families, but sell the excess to a local chef who has offered to serve the gardens’ bounty in his restaurant.

Donations to the Huertas Urbanas project help to pay for seeds, tools, and gardening classes, among other things. These gardens are bright spots in this low-income neighborhood, providing hope and a sense of community pride, in addition to healthy food and a source of income.

More information about the Huertas Urbanas project is available at

Regular blogging will resume soon with a post about Cuba.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018



The hardest thing for me in writing this post about Croatia is figuring out how to describe the book I read, Dubravka Ugrešić’s The Museum of Unconditional Surrender. There’s no plot, and the writing doesn’t follow a linear, chronological path. Instead, the book consists of a series of recollections. The shorter ones are numbered, and the longer ones have their own chapter or subchapter names.

The Museum of Unconditional Surrender opens with an item about Roland the walrus, an inhabitant of the Berlin zoo, whose stomach contents were inventoried after he died. The list is too lengthy to go into here, but Roland had ingested a surprising variety of non-food items, including a cigarette lighter, a child’s water pistol, a bunch of keys, and a pair of sunglasses, just to name a few. The narrator is inclined to look for some kind of subtle, secret connections among the objects, and suggests the reader do the same with this book: “The chapters and fragments which follow should be read in a similar way. If the reader feels that there are no meaningful or firm connections between them, let him be patient: the connections will establish themselves of their own accord.”

As I read the book, it became clear that the narrator’s theme is exile and the sense of not belonging. Raised in Yugoslavia when it was still a federation of countries, including Croatia, the narrator has become a writer unable to return to her country because she wrote “something I shouldn’t have” when the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s led to the break-up of the country. She writes of travelling to Lisbon, Portugal, “with a huge amount of luggage, or entirely without luggage, depending on how you looked at it. I had lost my homeland. I had not yet got used to the loss, nor to the fact that my homeland was the same, but different. In just one year I had lost my home, my friends, my job, the possibility of returning soon, but also the desire to return.”

The narrator shares vignettes of many of the places she has visited, both before and during her exile. The book also includes musings by or about her mother, who moved as a young woman from Bulgaria to Yugoslavia. The mother has grown fearful of leaving her house, so her world has shrunk at the same time her daughter’s world has expanded as a result of her exile. In both cases, there is a strong feeling of alienation.

In the end, just as the narrator had promised, the connections among the book’s fragments did indeed “establish themselves of their own accord.”


The text of the book actually includes a recipe, so how could I not prepare it? When the narrator’s mother talks of the poverty of her early married life, she says, “Those were lean years. People shopped with coupons. The only material you could buy was homespun. There was nothing. No-thing! They were hungry … They cooked paupers’ food …”. When the narrator asks what paupers’ food is, her mother replies, “Caraway soup.” And that’s literally what it is: soup made from oil, flour, water, and spices, including caraway seeds, then topped with homemade croutons. I didn’t use the recipe in the book, since I wouldn’t be able to reprint it here without running afoul of copyright laws. Instead, I found a recipe for Croatian flour soup, which is similar, on the Genius Kitchen website. I left out the optional egg white, and made the appropriate conversions from grams to teaspoons or tablespoons (1 tablespoon of oil, ¾ teaspoon of paprika, 1 teaspoon of caraway seeds). I liked the soup more than I expected to, but probably not enough to make it again.


No projects were listed for Croatia on the GlobalGiving website, so I looked to see what I could find on the Internet. I discovered an organization right here in Northern California with the stated purpose of developing “leaders for Croatia’s future by providing financial assistance to highly qualified students of Croatian origin, living in Croatia or Bosnia and Herzegovina, so that they may attend a university in Croatia or in Bosnia and Herzegovina.” More information about this organization, the Croatian Scholarship Fund, is available at


Sunday, January 21, 2018



As the book’s young narrator tells it, the full title of the book I read from the Côte d’Ivoire is “Allah is not obliged to be fair about all the things he does here on earth.” Birahima should know – at the age of ten or twelve (his grandmother seems to think he’s two years younger than his mother told him he was), he is an orphan and has fought as a child-soldier for several different warlords.

He tells his story using the help of four different dictionaries that have come into his possession, and the book is peppered with the definitions of many of the words he uses. You would think this would be distracting, but it’s really not, especially when he chooses to define a term in his own words. For example, he describes “humanitarian peacekeeping” as being when “one country is allowed to send soldiers into another country to kill innocent victims in their own country, in their own villages, in their own huts, sitting on their own mats.”

Birahima’s life as a child-soldier begins after his mother dies and it is decided that he should go live with his aunt in the neighboring country of Liberia, accompanied by a local businessman. They don’t get too far into Liberia before they are captured by a contingent loyal to one of Liberia’s major warlords, and Birahima is pressed into service. While the concept of child-soldiers may be horrifying to most of us, the prospect didn’t seem to trouble Birahima. As he says at one point in the book, “When you haven’t got no father, no mother, no brothers, no sisters, no aunts, no uncles, when you haven’t got nothing at all, the best thing to do is become a child-soldier. Being a child soldier is for kids who’ve got f*ck all left on earth or Allah’s heaven.”

Throughout the book, various misadventures lead to Birahima leaving warlord after warlord, only to be captured and put to work by someone else. He never stops trying to find his aunt, however.

Most of the book’s action doesn’t take place in Côte d’Ivoire, but in Liberia. There is also a segment in which Birahima travels to Sierra Leone. In addition to the interactions between the people and the governments of the various countries, the book discusses the tensions between the "Afro-American colonialists" in Liberia and the various groups of indigenous people.

The best thing about Allah Is Not Obliged is its very engaging narrator. Birahima is tough, profane, precocious, and thoroughly likeable. He is very much the hero of his own story, describing himself throughout as “the blameless, fearless street kid, the child-soldier.” He’s a character I’ll remember for a long time.


Getting enough food to eat is a problem for Birahima at various times throughout the book, and the child-soldiers always talk amongst themselves about which warlords are able to offer all the food they can eat. It’s probably no surprise, then, that I didn’t find anything in the book that would be appropriate to prepare for this blog. In an Internet search, I found a recipe for an Ivorian chilled avocado soup on the Genius Kitchen website. It was ridiculously easy to make, and it was very good. I’ll have to try to remember to make it again when the weather heats up.


No projects were listed for Côte d’Ivoire on the GlobalGiving website, but a quick Internet search turned up a nonprofit organization called Ivory Coast Mothers and Children. This group “works in partnership with The Patricia Nau Clinic, a community-based maternal health clinic located in the village of Braffoueby, Cote d’Ivoire. Through funding and capacity building support, we are building healthier communities by advancing quality medical care for safe births and access to disease treatment and prevention, especially for mothers, newborns, and children under five.” This is particularly important in Côte d’Ivoire, a country with one of the highest infant and under-five mortality rates in the world. More information about Ivory Coast Mothers and Children is available at


Saturday, January 13, 2018



Mysteries and thrillers are my favorite fiction genre, so it was a treat to discover that the book I’d chosen for Costa Rica was a very readable mystery. Cadence of the Moon, by Óscar Núñez Olivas, tells the twisted tale of a serial killer who is terrorizing the people of Costa Rica’s capital city, San Jose.

Most of the victims are women, and there are many telltale signs, often gruesome, to support the conclusion that the murders are all the work of one man. Trying to find the killer becomes all-consuming for Homicide Chief Gustavo Cortés and other members of the police force. The FBI even sends in one of its profilers to assist in the investigation as the number of victims continues to grow.

Also working hard to discover the identity of the killer is reporter Maricruz Miranda and others at the newspaper El Matutino. As Maricruz pursues the story, she finds herself more and more in the company of Gustavo, which lends romantic intrigue to the plot.

The investigation takes many twists and turns, reaching into a religious cult, a left-wing terror group, and the highest rungs of the social ladder. Many themes are raised in the book – misogyny, work-life balance, workplace ethics, and the politics of class, among others. The ending isn’t all tied up with a pretty bow, but it may present a realistic picture of the pressures that can be brought to bear in a setting where the oligarchs hold all the power.


The characters in Cadence of the Moon didn’t eat anything that was culturally relevant, so I went back to the International Vegetarian Union’s website to look for a recipe from Costa Rica. I found a good one for black bean soup. It had a ton of different spices in it, but since I’d reorganized by spice cabinet on New Year’s Day, I was ready for it.

This is a very hearty soup and has an excellent flavor. It’s a tiny bit on the spicy side, so if that’s a problem for you, you should probably cut down on the amount of cayenne. A dollop of vegan sour cream provided a nice finishing touch.


The GlobalGiving website lists several projects for Costa Rica. None related to any particular situation in the book, so I just chose one that touched my heart. The Community Action Alliance provides school supplies, uniforms, and shoes to help children from low-income families attend public school in Costa Rica. Many of the children who receive assistance from this program are being raised by single mothers or guardians, and they would not be able to afford to go to school without this help from the Community Action Alliance. More information about this program is available at


Saturday, January 6, 2018



The narrator of the book I read for the Republic of the Congo is a man known to the locals as “Broken Glass,” which is also the book’s title. Being a regular patron of a bar called Credit Gone West, he has been given a notebook by the owner of the bar and asked to write in it. The bar owner doesn’t put much stock in the spoken word, and thinks that by having Broken Glass write things down, Credit Gone West won’t vanish from people’s memories one day. Broken Glass begins by writing bawdy and fairly graphic stories about a few of the bar’s patrons in the first part of the book.

It was the last part of the book I found more compelling, however, because it is there that Broken Glass begins to write about himself. The reader learns that he is sixty-four years old, and that he was once married. His appetite for red wine, however, has cost him his marriage. He used to be a teacher, a calling that he loved, but his alcoholism led him to do many unacceptable things in the classroom until he was finally fired. Sometimes when he writes about the days before he lost everything he valued, he prefaces his reflections with the phrase, “… when I was a man like all the rest…”.

Broken Glass used to love to read, and talks about how he has “… traveled widely, without ever leaving my own native soil, I’ve traveled, one might say, through literature…”. In fact, he peppers his writing with frequent book references, ranging from Doctor Zhivago to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings to Snares Without End and many others. He is a mostly self-educated man, with a curiosity about people and places. Unfortunately, he has not found a way, aside from red wine, to deal with the one thing that has always tormented him, his mother’s death by drowning in the Tchinouka River.

The author of Broken Glass, Alain Mabanckou, has taken many liberties with punctuation and capitalization in this book, giving it an almost stream-of-consciousness feeling. I was afraid I would find this style of writing distracting, but the book held my interest throughout.


No one in Broken Glass ate anything I wanted to cook, so I had to once again do a Google search. I found a website I’ll have to remember for future blog posts, the International Vegetarian Union’s “Recipes Around the World” page. The recipe I chose from the Republic of the Congo was called Veggie Sauce Z’ara or Veggies in Peanut Sauce. Basically, it’s sautéed eggplant, zucchini, bell pepper, and carrots in peanut sauce, served over rice or pasta. I made the mistake of grabbing my eating peanut butter, complete with sugar, rather than my cooking peanut butter, which is just ground-up peanuts, so the dish turned out a little sweeter than I would have liked.


Giving may have been my favorite part of this blog post, because although only had one nonprofit organization listed for the Republic of the Congo, it was the one I would have picked even if there had been a hundred organizations to choose from. Primatologist and environmental champion Jane Goodall has been one of my heroes for a long time, so I was happy to contribute to the Jane Goodall Institute’s Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center for the care of orphaned chimpanzees. According to the project description, the “chimpanzees, victims of the illegal commercial bush meat trade, often arrive at the sanctuary sick, malnourished, and close to death. Under the skillful care of Tchimpounga's dedicated staff, these chimpanzees receive a second chance at life.” More information about the project is available at