Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Booktrekker is on vacation

Between holiday celebrations and traveling, I'm going to have to take a break from blogging. Check back again after January 12th. There may be occasional updates on The Booktrekker's Facebook page as well.

Happy holidays and good reading to you all!

Monday, December 12, 2016



Ali and Nino was written by Kurban Said eighty years ago, but the conflicts it portrays between East and West, between Islam and Christianity, are as relevant today as they were then. The book is set in Azerbaijan, which is situated between Europe and Asia, along with Georgia and Armenia.

The story follows the fates of Ali Khan Shirvanshir, a young man from a proud and venerated Muslim family, and Nino Kipiani, a young woman whose Georgian Christian family is no less proud and esteemed. The two are in love, which scandalizes no one in the town of Baku, where Muslims and Christians mingle openly. Still, their love is a constant balancing act for them, not only because of expectations from their families, but because of the political turmoil of the time.

For example, Ali’s devout friend Seyd has no problem with the idea of Ali marrying a Christian woman, since it is Seyd’s belief that a woman has neither soul nor intelligence. In his mind, Nino’s religion is irrelevant, although he is adamant that the sons of the marriage must be raised as Muslims. Nino is equally concerned when she thinks about how Muslim Persians laid waste to her country of Georgia in times past, and how her children as Muslims may participate in similar destruction in the future.

For his part, Ali worries about Nino’s yearnings for Europe, since he is a son of the sand and the desert and would be miserable in Paris or London or any of the other European capitals that Nino is drawn to. Nino agrees to continue living in Azerbaijan for Ali’s sake, but she lets him know that their child will not be a son of the desert. Ali acquiesces, and at that point he “knew that I had agreed to be the father of a European.”

Ali and Nino overcome many challenges in their relationship because of their love for each other. Azerbaijan, however, is a victim of its own geographical desirability. As the story begins, Azerbaijan is under the control of the Czar’s Russia. Later, the Turks, the British, and post-Czarist Russians all have designs on the region. In the end, it is the political upheaval, rather than their feelings for one another, that determines the fate of Ali and Nino’s relationship.


While there was plenty of eating and drinking in Ali and Nino, I didn't find anything I thought was representative of the country and also easily veganizable. So I decided to look for something online, and found several references to pomegranate salad in the cuisine of Azerbaijan. Since it's pomegranate season, that seemed to be the perfect choice.

It took awhile for my taste buds to adjust to the combination of main ingredients in the recipe -- pomegranate seeds and boiled potatoes -- but I liked it once I got used to it. The recipe called for either dill or cilantro, which have such different flavors. I opted for cilantro, but if I had it to do over again, I'd probably choose the dill. I used vegan mayonnaise in place of the non-vegan variety.

The recipe I used is from a blog called "AZ Cookbook," featuring recipes from Azerbaijan and Turkey.


In searching for an organization to give my Azerbaijan donation to, I found a British crowdfunding site called JustGiving, which had a fundraising page for a group called United Aid for Azerbaijan. This organization "implements strategies to help children in need of special protection, those who have been abandoned by their families because of poverty, social problems and disability." More information about United Aid for Azerbaijan is available at


Sunday, December 4, 2016



So far, most of the books I've read for this project have been by male authors, so I've been actively seeking out books written by women. When I found Brigitte Schwaiger's Why Is There Salt in the Sea? in the European Women Writers Series, I knew it was going to be my book for Austria.

In the book's afterword, translator Sieglinde Lug says the author viewed this book as an "inner monologue," rather than a novel. That's a perfect description, as the book follows the thoughts of the narrator in her attempts to come to terms with her existence in what is very much a man's world. Tellingly, we never find out her name, although we know the names of the men in her life.

As the daughter of a doctor, the narrator is encouraged to go into medicine too. But she doesn't like the field, and nothing else she thinks of doing seems good enough to her father. She ends up getting married instead, and regretting her decision even before the wedding takes place.

In spite of her desire to "be able to talk to someone without being set straight," her husband Rolf is not that person. On the contrary, Rolf is the kind of person who says things like, "A woman without a man, what kind of thing is that?" Or, "I find it touching to see how you sit there and look as if you are thinking about something important."

The narrator looks for solace in a lover, but he doesn't give her the fulfillment she seeks either. Her struggle to find her way continues through the end of the book, and the reader is left to ponder whether the narrator will ever feel like a complete person in the patriarchal society in which she was raised.


The narrator of Why Is There Salt in the Sea? is not much of a cook. At one point in the book, she is perusing her cookbook. "Do put that book down, Rolf says, you don't learn cooking from books, you learn it from experience." The narrator observes that, "Flaky puff pastry is his favorite dish."

I'm not much of a cook, either, and the thought of trying to make a flaky vegan puff pastry was pretty daunting. A recipe for an easy three-ingredient vegan apple strudel on a blog called Elephantastic Vegan saved me. I used vegan fillo dough from my local natural foods store and added in some chopped walnuts, since I think everything is better with nuts. The resulting strudel was a little dry, but the filling was tasty. I suspect the recipe would be even better with melted vegan butter brushed onto the fillo dough sheets.


My donation for Austria has been sent to an organization called kinderhaende, which provides instruction in Austrian sign language to deaf children and their families. They are currently raising money for five classes in which children in Vienna, ages six months to seven years, and their families can learn sign language, get an affirmative perspective on deafness, and develop a positive image of people who sign. More information about this project is available at