Sunday, February 26, 2017



For Belgium, I read The Misfortunates, by Dimitri Verhulst. “Misfortunate” isn’t even listed in my Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, so I went to the Internet to see what it means (although I had a pretty good idea). According to, “misfortunate” is a Scottish term meaning “an unfortunate person.”

With such a sad-sounding title, I had hoped this book would be purely a work of fiction. But no – it’s a semi-autobiographical novel. In fact, the dedication reads, in part: “And in memory of my grandmother, who wanted to avoid the shame and died while I was completing the last pages of the manuscript.” Honestly, faced with this much gloom before I’d even read a word of the first chapter, I’m surprised I followed through with it.

As I got into it, though, it wasn’t an especially sad book, at least not in the sense that it made me want to cry. It’s a series of vignettes about four brothers (three adults and one teenager) living in the fictional town of Arsendegem, Belgium, with their mother and Dimitri, the 13-year-old son of one of the brothers. Dimitri is the book’s narrator, and these vignettes are woven together loosely to tell the story of his coming of age among four men whose lives revolve around alcohol and other vices. Mostly alcohol, though.

When Dimitri is born, his father is at one of the local pubs and doesn’t make it to the hospital in time for the birth. When he finally arrives on a bicycle, inebriated, he snatches baby Dimitri up, loads him onto the bicycle, and takes him to all his favorite pubs to show him to his friends. More drinking ensues, and it’s a miracle that Dimitri is returned to the hospital in one piece by his father later that night.

Some chapters in the book are comical, such as the one detailing the family’s obsession with the music of Roy Orbison, and others are poignant, like the one in which Dimitri, now an adult, visits his grandmother in the nursing home where she is in the advanced stages of dementia. The reader follows Dimitri’s father’s journey to the rehab clinic to try to take control of his drinking, and Dimitri’s unhappiness about becoming a father himself. Throughout the book, there is an air of fatalism, a feeling among the characters that their lot in life is simply to drink, smoke, and carouse until cancer or some other illness kills them.

Dimitri’s life doesn’t follow the pattern of the other men in the family, but the scars from his earlier years are apparent in the writing. Also apparent, however, is his great affection for those men. As an adult who has long since moved away from Arsendegem, he writes, “The misfortunate have a more realistic view of the world; my love for my uncles is vast and incomprehensible, but no one has ever had the gall to demand comprehensibility of love.”


Food was mentioned occasionally in The Misfortunates, but nothing sounded very good, and practically nothing was vegan or veganizable, although one of Dimitri’s uncles did joke, “Next thing they’ll come up with meat-free meat.” Mostly, the men in the family just drank. As Dimitri said of his father, “The years in which he dutifully drank himself into serial oblivion had robbed him of his appetite.”

That left me free to search the Internet for any Belgian recipes I could veganize, and the Belgian potato soup recipe I found on the Recipes Wiki website looked perfect. I substituted margarine for the butter and vegetable broth for the chicken stock, of course, but I wasn’t sure how to replace the light cream. One website suggested blending silken tofu until smooth, so that’s what I did. I also added salt and pepper. The soup was delicious, and I’m sure it will become a winter favorite for me.


Women did not fare well in The Misfortunates. The only man in Dimitri’s family who appeared to have had a relationship of any duration with a woman was his dad, and that didn’t end happily. Attractive women were objectified, and the men didn't consider most other women worth discussing. The whole lot of Verhulst men seemed to go back and forth between being misogynists and simply not being interested in anything that wasn’t booze.

In choosing an organization for this week’s donation, I decided to get back at this old boys’ club by giving my money to a group that helps girls. Greenlight for Girls, which I found through the GlobalGiving website, "holds one-day, girl-focused events to show the fun in math, science, engineering and technology through hands-on workshops run by role-models in STEM fields." The events are offered in Brussels free of charge, and the organization reaches out to girls in low-income neighborhoods especially. More information about this project is available at


Thursday, February 23, 2017



Both the title and the note preceding the text were strong clues that I was in for some heavy reading when I picked up Paranoia, by Victor Martinovich. The note at the beginning of the book reads:

“All the events related herein are fictional: the protagonists have never existed in any reality other than that of the present text. Any unsanctioned comparisons with historical figures or persons alive today may be qualified as a criminal offense punishable under international and national law. To avoid unintentionally committing acts prosecutable under the Penal Code, the author – fully aware that, essentially, he should never have written it in the first place – enjoins readers not to read this book.”

Indeed, according to the book’s foreword, Paranoia was pulled from the shelves only two days after its release in Belarus, and the author is living in exile. Belarus is a former republic of the Soviet Union, and the people of that country are still subject to many Soviet-era policies and practices.

The book features a pair of young lovers in the Belarusian capital of Minsk who are caught up in an unfortunate love triangle, with the third member of the triangle being the country’s leader. This would be a problem even in a democracy, but under an authoritarian government where the president is essentially a dictator, it’s a recipe for disaster.

The book’s protagonist, Anatoly, is a writer of some acclaim. He leads a rather mundane life in Minsk until the day he spots Lisa in a local cafĂ©. They meet and fall in love, but it’s not long until Lisa confesses to Anatoly that she’s the mistress of the country’s president. In addition to the turmoil this causes in their relationship, it creates an upheaval in other aspects of Anatoly’s life, as he suddenly becomes a person of interest to the country’s state security police. Everything comes to a head when Lisa, who has just revealed that she’s pregnant, disappears and is presumed from the bloody evidence left behind to have been murdered.

I thought the circumstances of the blossoming relationship between Anatoly and Lisa were unconvincing, and the characters’ dialogue was much too flowery and scripted. Martinovich’s descriptions of life in an authoritarian state, however, seemed chillingly authentic. Timothy Snyder’s foreword to the book describes a country in which “all that is not expressly permitted is forbidden,” and in which repressive policies of the former Soviet Union are still in effect. One passage in the book sums up the situation this way:

“The German press agent who handled his work had once said, ‘What’s distinctive about the present epoch is that nowadays anti-utopias can be based on entirely factual material. There’s no more need to invent 1984: just look around.’”

In Paranoia, Martinovich paints a stark portrait of Belarus as just such an anti-utopia. As the old saying goes, it’s not paranoia if they’re really out to get you.


I wasn’t sure I’d find any good food references in a book about such a dark subject. After all, who can think about food when they’re being targeted by the brutal state security police? Happily, there were a few decent food mentions, including a reference to pelmeni dumplings. Anatoly and Lisa had rented a small apartment, with a kitchen about which Anatoly says, “The ceiling lights, the clumsy dripping faucet, the ceramic boot full of burned matches, the range hood with its broken clock, the kitchen cupboards with bay leaves, coriander, and black pepper ready at any moment to help us boil up pelmeni meat dumplings…”.   

I found a recipe for pelmeni on a website called Dacha 2 Table. I substituted flaxseed meal and water for the egg in the dough recipe, and substituted Beyond Meat beef crumbles for the meat in the filling. The recipe suggested serving the pelmeni with vodka sauce or sour cream, so I opted for vegan sour cream. I also cooked the filling before putting it in the dumpling.

They look beautiful, but considering how much work they were, I wish I liked them better.


When the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster occurred in 1986, 70 percent of the radiation fallout fell on Belarus. The health effects to the people there have been severe and long-lasting, resulting in an outpouring of support from people around the world, especially directed toward the children of Belarus. Dozens of organizations arrange for children to travel to other countries during the summers or to uncontaminated areas of Belarus, where the children receive medical attention and spend time in a clean, healthy environment. One such group, which received my donation for Belarus, is the American Belarussian Relief Organization. ABRO has brought more than 5,000 children from Belarus to the United States “for rest and medical evaluation. Another 400 children have benefited from the summer camps held in the uncontaminated region of Belarus.” More information about this organization is available on their website at


Sunday, February 12, 2017




When I was making my list of books to read for each country, I noticed that it was pretty heavily weighted toward male authors. With that in mind, I actively sought out women writers to balance out my reading. My research led me to a woman author named Karen Lord from Barbados, and that was how I came to read a completely different type of novel for this country, an island in the Caribbean, than I have been reading for other countries.

Lord’s novel, Redemption in Indigo, is a work of speculative fiction, although I would simply have called it a folk tale. It’s the story of a woman of good character named Paama, who is an excellent cook. Unfortunately, her husband Ansije is a glutton, and no matter how much food Paama makes for him, it is never enough. Paama finally decides to leave him and go back to her parents’ home. They, in turn, move the family back to their ancestral village in order to put some distance between Paama and Ansije.

As the narrator points out, however, “… Ansije was not the villain of the story. He was the joker, the momentary hindrance, the test of character for Paama’s growth and learning.” And since this is a folk tale, many of the book’s characters are not human. They are djombis, also known as the undying. As with humans, there are good djombis and bad djombis. There are also djombis who used to be benevolent towards humans, but who have since developed a less helpful attitude.

One such djombi, whose name is Indigo, has become particularly troublesome, so his djombi superiors have decided he needs to be taught a lesson. Because of her strength of character, they choose Paama to be their instrument in teaching Indigo that lesson.

Redemption in Indigo explores the choices people make, both good and bad. On the one hand, Ansije’s gluttony is “… truly the bathos of human experience, a gift of life and opportunity squandered and spoiled.” Paama’s character, on the other hand, is described thus: “Nothing stopped her from trying to do what she felt to be right, not even despair.”

I enjoyed the author’s wit and her ability to turn a phrase. Ansije’s “mother had been the daughter of a minor chief, and she had carefully instilled in Ansije an understanding of the importance of importance,” was one observation that made me laugh, especially considering all the stars of pop culture to whom that phrase might apply. All in all, this novel made for very enjoyable reading.


Although the author is from Barbados, the setting for Redemption in Indigo is a fictional country, with made-up towns and villages, so the food mentioned in the book wasn’t necessarily the food of Barbados. One thing that came up more than once, however, and seemed like something that could probably be found anywhere in the Caribbean, was a drink Paama had when she visited the House of the Sisters:
“Within an hour or so, Paama was sitting on a mat before a low table set with simple but delicious refreshments: fruit, soft cheese, semisweet cakes laden with nuts, and the drink the House had made famous – lime juice with just the right proportions of mint and ginger.”
I found a recipe at that sounded exactly like what Sister Jani served Paama, and it was fabulous!


Just in case the ginger limeade isn’t actually something one would drink in Barbados, I decided to try another recipe too. Cou cou, made of okra and cornmeal, is apparently one of the national dishes of Barbados. The recipe I used was from a website called Since I couldn’t find fresh okra, I had to use frozen. It never thickened up the way it was supposed to, but it would make a decent side dish.


My donation for Barbados is going to Variety the Children’s Charity, an organization with chapters all over the world. The chapter in Barbados is “committed to supporting the children of Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean, especially those who are sick, physically or mentally challenged, through the improvement of the care given to them and the quality of their lives in general.” More information about Variety the Children’s Charity of Barbados is available at



Sunday, February 5, 2017



For Bangladesh, I was planning to read Tahmima Anam’s The Good Muslim. But just as I finished the first few pages, I found out that it was a sequel to Anam’s first novel, A Golden Age. So I stopped reading The Good Muslim (for now), and picked up A Golden Age.

The book opens with widow Rehana Haque losing her children in a court proceeding in 1959. Her husband has died suddenly, and his brother Faiz is able to convince the court that Rehana doesn’t have the wherewithal to care for them properly. He and his wife take the children from their home in Dhaka, East Pakistan, to Faiz’s home in Lahore, West Pakistan.

Fast forward to 1971. Rehana’s children, Sohail and Maya, have long since been returned to her. They go to school at the local university, where they are involved in the Bangladesh independence movement. At that time, Bangladesh was part of the Dominion of Pakistan and was known as East Pakistan. Sohail and Maya are optimistic about the results of the recent election, but things aren’t happening the way they expected them to happen.

A near riot at a cricket match that she and her family attend gives Rehana a scare, but she is able to convince herself that everything will be fine: “… suddenly Rehana felt sure it would all resolve itself: Sheikh Mujib would be Prime Minister, and the country would go on being her home, and the children would go on being her children. In no time at all the world would right itself, and they would go on living ordinary, unexceptional lives.”

That is not the case, however, and when the city is suddenly invaded by the Pakistani army, everyone is caught completely off-guard. Rehana’s children become immersed in the resistance movement, and because they are her children, Rehana becomes involved too. She helps Sohail and his friends hide weapons and an injured comrade, and later, she travels to Calcutta, where Maya helps out in a refugee camp. The descriptions of the refugee camp and its inhabitants are particularly poignant.

While the book’s plot centers around the fight for independence for Bangladesh, it is also a book about love – romantic love, love for one’s country, but most of all, a mother’s love for her children. I’m happy to know that there is a sequel, because I’m not yet ready to say goodbye to these characters, and I’m looking forward to reading more of this author’s beautiful writing.


In many of the books I’ve read for this global reading project, I can’t find even one mention of a dish to cook from that country. I had the opposite problem with A Golden Age. There were so many mouth-watering foods described that I had trouble making up my mind which to choose. Dal, biryani, samosas, puris – I wanted it all.

In the end, what I wanted the most was beguni, battered and fried eggplant slices. Rehana makes this dish during Ramadan, an Islamic observance requiring fasting from sunup to sundown, as part of the meal she and Maya will eat after the sun goes down. She knows that Sohail and his friends are out on a dangerous mission, and that occupies her mind while she cooks.

“The fear breathed on her neck and sent the hair upright, electric. It caught her in the double-beat of her heart, the pulse she could feel at her temple, the tremor of her hand as she fried the Iftar food. Beguni, the crunchy strips of eggplant. Chickpeas and tomatoes. The dalpuri Maya had rolled out and stuffed. Orange juice. Tamarind juice. Lassi. It was not elaborate enough for a special occasion, not simple enough to indicate want. A meal for an ordinary day. A meal for a day without war.”

I found the recipe on a blog called Rownak’s Bangla Recipes, which says that beguni is very popular for Ramadan, although eggplant becomes very expensive during that time. The recipe is already vegan, so I didn’t have to make any substitutions for that reason. I couldn’t find carom seeds, which are from the same family as caraway seeds, so I substituted caraway instead. The beguni was tasty, although I’d probably use a little less water in the batter next time, and a little more salt.


I had assumed that my donation for Bangladesh would go to the Grameen Foundation, which was inspired by Mohammed Yunus, a Bangladeshi social entrepreneur and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his pioneering work in microcredit and microfinance. However, the Grameen Foundation didn’t seem to have any way for me to earmark my donation for Bangladesh, so I went back to my old stand-by, They had many projects listed in Bangladesh, but the one that caught my eye, because of Rehana’s devotion to her children, was the Mothers’Clubs in Bangladesh, established by the Hope Foundation for Women &Children of Bangladesh. The purpose of these clubs is to provide mothers with health education, especially information about preventative healthcare, so they can better help their families. More information about the Mothers’ Clubs in Bangladesh is available at