Saturday, September 24, 2016



I wasn't too far along in Ismail Kadare's bleak Broken April before I felt the need to stop reading and do a little Internet research to find out whether the book was allegorical or whether the situation facing one of the main characters was rooted in reality. The plot turned out to be based on very real practices mandated by the Kanun, a code of traditional Albanian laws. Thus forewarned, I settled in to read Kadare's dark novel about the Kanun's decrees concerning blood feuds in the High Plateau region of Albania.

The beginning of the story follows the unfortunate Gjorg Berisha, who, to avenge his brother's murder, must kill the murderer. Zef Kryeqyqe, the man who killed his brother, had done so to avenge the murder by Gjorg's brother of a man in Zef's family, who had been killed for having murdered someone in Gjorg's family. This had been the pattern for the past seventy years, leading to 22 deaths in the Berisha family and 22 deaths in the Kryeqyqe family. Having killed Zef, Gjorg knows that his remaining time on earth is very limited. The logical conclusion to this blood feud is likely to eventually be the extinction of both families. 

The book also follows a young couple, Bessian and Diana, who have come from the Albanian capital of Tirana to visit the High Plateau for their honeymoon. Bessian, a writer, is particularly fascinated by the tradition of blood feuds in the region, viewing the practice as Homeric and even majestic. As he tells Diana with a smile, "We are entering the shadow-land, the place where the laws of death prevail over the laws of life." Diana, on the other hand, "felt as if something were collapsing inside her." Their travels in the High Plateau affect them in ways they could not have predicted, especially after their path crosses Gjorg's for a brief moment.

As you might have surmised, this was not an uplifting book, but it was fascinating to read about a practice that is apparently still followed in some parts of Albania. As Kadare explains through the thoughts of one of his characters, "Successive generations had been accustomed to the feuds from their cradles, and so, not being able to conceive of life without them, it never entered their minds to try to free themselves from their destined end." Here's hoping that the practice fades away and that the young men of the High Plateau may someday travel the roads freely without watching over their shoulders for death's approach.


There wasn't much feasting in Broken AprilPeople were poor from having to pay the blood tax when it was their turn to kill (since, of course, someone profits from all of this death), or saving up in anticipation of the day when it would be their turn to kill and have to pay the blood tax. Bessian and Diana, who appeared to have plenty of money, ordered fried eggs, cheese, and yogurt for their meals, but those items were beyond the means of Gjorg as he traveled to Orosh to pay his blood tax.  When he stopped at an inn along the way, the innkeeper asked him if he'd like to have something, and Gjorg replied, "A plate of beans. How much will it be? I've got my own bread."  So for my Albanian meal, I made beans and bread from recipes I found on an Albanian food blog. The only ingredient I had to change in order to make the beans vegan was to substitute Earth Balance spread for the butter the recipe called for.


In researching Albanian organizations, I came across one recommended by Anne F. Cunningham, whose husband was the U.S. Ambassador to Albania from 2010 to 2014. The Organization for the Support of Albania's Abandoned Babies (OSAAB) provides a safe haven so that mothers who want to give up their unwanted babies know that the babies will receive proper medical attention and loving care until such time as they can be moved to an orphanage to await adoption. More information about this organization is available on their website at


Sunday, September 18, 2016



An unintended benefit of this global reading project is that it gave me the nudge I needed to read a book I should have read long before now. I'm probably the only person on the planet who had never read anything by Khaled Hosseini, and after finishing A Thousand Splendid Suns, I know my world view was poorer for the omission. I had avoided Hosseini's books because I was afraid they would be crushingly sad, and this book certainly had those moments. But it also painted a very rich picture of life in Afghanistan, with a special focus on the lives of women.

Mariam and Laila come from different cities and different backgrounds, but their lives intersect in ways both tragic and tender. While both women enjoy relatively happy interludes at different points in their lives, changes in both their personal circumstances and the political climate of their country serve to underscore an admonition Mariam received as a young girl from her mother, Nana:  "There is only one, only one skill a woman like you and me needs in life, and they don't teach it in school... Only one skill. And it's this: tahamul. Endure."

There is much for both Mariam and Laila to endure in an Afghanistan undergoing constant political turmoil. As a taxi driver remarked during Laila's day trip with her father and her friend to see the Bamiyan Buddhas, "And that, my young friends, is the story of our country, one invader after another... Macedonians. Sassanians. Arabs. Mongols. Now the Soviets. But we're like those walls up there. Battered, and nothing pretty to look at, but still standing." I found that moment to be particularly poignant, knowing the Taliban would take power after the Soviet era and blow up the ancient Bamiyan Buddhas that had inspired Laila with awe that day.

Hosseini is a spellbinding storyteller, and he tempers agony with a sense of hopefulness.  Reading A Thousand Splendid Suns was a remarkable way to begin my literary trip around the world.


The food of Afghanistan offers many wonderful options for vegans, although the dish I decided to make is one that's often made with meat. I chose it because it represented a joyful day in Laila's life, a day when her mother was in uncharacteristically good spirits and decided to throw a party for the neighbors:  "With unsettling energy, Mammy set about cooking: aush soup with kidney beans and dried dill...".

I found a recipe for a vegetarian aush soup on the Washington Post's website. It's a spicy garbanzo bean, vegetable, and noodle soup, perfect to welcome the start of autumn. The only change needed to make the soup vegan was to use non-dairy yogurt in place of the whole-milk yogurt the recipe calls for. Here is the link to the recipe:


It was easy to decide which nonprofit organization should receive my donation for Afghanistan.  Khaled Hosseini, the author of A Thousand Splendid Suns, has created his own foundation to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan. According to the website of the Khaled Hosseini Foundation, the "Foundation works with the United Nations refugee organization (UNHCR) to build shelters for refugee families. It also provides economic opportunities, education, and healthcare for women and children of Afghanistan." I hope my donation will help other women like Mariam and Laila.


Saturday, September 17, 2016

Exploring the World through Books

Reading and traveling have been two of my favorite pastimes for almost as long as I can remember. Or, as I learned to say early on in my Spanish classes at Casa de EspaƱol, "Me gusta viajar y leer."

So I was caught completely by surprise when I saw a Facebook post recently about how author Ann Morgan had found a way to combine the two: she decided to spend a year reading a book from every country in the world. How on earth had I never thought of that?

I read Morgan's book about this project, The World Between the Covers: Reading the Globe, pored over her blog, "A Year of Reading the World,", and watched her TED talk. And then I decided to start reading the world myself. What better way to experience all the countries I'll never be able to visit? For that matter, what better way to remind myself of the many wonderful trips I've had the good fortune to take?

My project will differ from Morgan's, not only in what I will do, but in what I won't. For starters, I'm not planning to do all this reading in just one year. I'll take my time and savor the experience, although to the extent possible, I'll try to keep to a book-a-week schedule.

In order to make this project my own, I'm also going to add a couple of components. While Elizabeth Gilbert's mantra was "Eat Pray Love," mine is going to be "Read Cook Give."

First, I'll read a book, preferably fiction, about the country I'm exploring that week. I'm planning to read the countries in alphabetical order, which will allow me to skip back and forth from continent to continent, from region to region.

Next, I'll prepare a dish from the country I just read about. As many of you already know, I'm vegan, so whatever recipe I decide to cook will be vegan too. Whenever possible, I'll try to cook something that was mentioned in the book, but we'll see how that goes.

Finally to honor the book's author, I'll donate a small sum of money to an organization or cause that will benefit the author's country. The donation will likely not be more than $25, since multiplying that amount by the 195 books I plan to read will eventually total almost $5,000. But researching organizations for this purpose will help me feel a deeper connection to the country.

I'll be blogging after every book, and I hope you'll enjoy following me on this literary journey. If you have book, recipe, or nonprofit organization recommendations for any country, I'd love to hear them.

First stop: Afghanistan.