The Sun Will Soon Shine (The Gambia)

book coverby Sally Sadie Singhateh

I think this novel must be intended for younger readers, since the graphic bits like FGM (female genital mutilation) and molestation are glossed over. Nonetheless, it was a good read.

Growing up in the Gambia isn’t easy for girls. The heroine of this novel finds out later that her father was a progressive man. Had he lived to protect her, she probably wouldn’t have suffered an early arranged marriage, FGM, and virtual slavery to a distasteful older man who doesn’t love her. (His teeth are stained with betel juice…) Unfortunately, Nyima’s father died when she was young. Her mother knows that these things are not what her husband wanted for their daughter, yet she is powerless to prevent them from happening.

map of the GambiaThank God for Cousins

Nyima’s cousin, however is not powerless. She’s a strong figure in a world sadly lacking in female role models. This cousin rescues Nyima and enrolls her back in school, in a city. Unfortunately even the cousin can’t protect the girl from all the men looking to use her.

To clarify, I’m not criticizing when I say the topic of FGM is glossed over–it’s mentioned in broad vague outlines, and the humiliation and the pain are given, but the details aren’t gone into. It’s not gory. I appreciated that. And it is suitable for younger audiences too. Some distinctions are made. Nyima has a friend, Ameena, whose tribe is even more harsh with the FGM practice–poor Ameena is “completely sealed”. Ugh.

Stone circles in the Gambia
These stone circles which run from Senegal through Gambia, are the largest in the world –UNESCO

Realistic but hopeful.

Was it Good for Me?

Nyima has a love for learning and enjoys living in Paris. She makes friends, and they don’t discriminate against her because she’s different. Although permanently scarred, (physically and mentally) she is able to make a life for herself.

And she is determined that the next generation of women will not have to endure what she has.

So I enjoyed this book a lot.

Rating: Four dishes of akara! Perhaps wrapped in a banana leaf.


Love Comes Later (Qatar)

Book Coverby Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar

courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore


No sex. No atheism. No politics. Still banned in Qatar.

This novel raises many questions. Number one is, how can you have a country that starts with a Q and no U? But all joking aside, this was a thought-provoking book. An Indian graduate student in London falls in love with her Qatari flatmate’s fiance. The thing is, neither the man or the woman betrothed to each other really want to marry each other.

map of QatarThe man in the arrangement lost his wife in a tragic car accident–of which there are all too many in this country of speeding automobiles–and the woman wants to study and have freedom rather than be a virtual slave of some guy. (In my blog on the United Arab Emirates, rich people also drive like madmen. Crazy. Of course, so do Italians although Umberto Eco doesn’t mention it that I recall.)

What Is Life Like For the Filthy Rich?

The Qatar presented in this book isn’t a pretty picture. The main characters in the book are spoiled and entitled and very very rich. If you took America’s top 1 Percent, and populated an entire desert country with them, well, that is the Qatar of this novel. The rich people’s servants come from countries like Sri Lanka, Pakistan and India and aren’t treated very well. Qataris drive even to go a distance of two blocks. Women aren’t allowed to work, so they spend all their time shopping at the mall. They seem shallow and vacuous. (Not to say that Americans can’t be materialistic too.)The men are trapped by this society–Abdullah, the hero of the book, doesn’t want to remarry after Fatima is killed, but his male relatives nag him relentlessly for the family’s good name. I have no doubt that a Japanese person would recognize this nagging as “saving face.”

waterfront in QuatarThe thing is, there doesn’t seem to be anything about this setup that makes people happy.

To keep wealth in the family, they all try to marry their cousins. Yes, their first cousins. The younger generation, however, is starting to rebel. Hind and Abdullah are just two of those. But is the patriarchal system about to grind them up and spit them out in little tiny pieces? It seems most likely.

The Final Say

desert skyscraptersI enjoyed the developing romance between Sangita and Abdullah, and the struggles that Hind had for independence. The author, I think, took care not to tie things up too neatly, although she could have. I won’t give the specifics as it is a major spoiler.

Suffice it to say that if you want a glimpse of life in modern Qatar, along with a cracking good love story, read this book. Of course, it’s only one glimpse.

Rating: Five desert highrises.

Oh, PS–I forgot to mention that this book was a 2013 finalist for the e-Festival of Wordsand it won the New Talent Award in the 2012 Festival of Romance Competition. If that’s not enough for you, it is also a Best Indie 2013 Book Award Winner.

JULY 2017

PPS–I’ve just had a comment from the author of this book! Is it too nerdy to say I was thrilled? LOL Anyway, the sequel is out. It’s called Pearls of the Past. So, loose ends…prepare to get woven together with the ties that bind.


Absolute Monarchs (Vatican City)

by John Julius Norwich

courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

I wasn’t going to count Vatican City as a country. (I mean, it’s a religion inside a city, right?) I thought Popes were about religion rather than power and politics. Not always, according to this book. In fact, not often.

I thought that Vatican City was analogous to Salt Lake City, where the head of the Mormon religion resides. But it’s actually more like the nation of Israel, which once upon a time had more territory too (the Pope used to possess the Papal States).

Popes have fought battles, won and lost territory; made and broken alliances; maintained a standing army not to mention the personal bodyguard known as the Swiss Guard; spoken a variety of languages; strangled, suffocated, hung, and poisoned their rivals; had illegitimate children; issued currency, borrowed money, squabbled over the succession; and in general done everything that Kings do and then some. Very few Popes reminded me in any way of Jesus Christ. (I got almost physically ill reading how a leading light of the Jesuit Order, itself persecuted in Portugal and eventually suppressed by the Pope, owned 500 slaves in Martinique.) Not to say that ordinary Catholics can’t be good people. Most ordinary people of any faith are. But power, as they say corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

I am reminded of the metaphor of God as an elephant, and people of faith as blind men feeling only the tail, or the trunk, and proclaiming their discoveries as complete and absolute truth. My previous forays into history were like this.

But I’m a true crime aficionado. After reading this book, I felt like I’d FINALLY been given the background for lots of historical events that never made sense before. Means, motive, opportunity. Motives: Money, lust, revenge. Who benefits?

Round Up the Usual Suspects

And just who were the Popes before they ascended to the Papal Throne? If you’ve read Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons you know a little something about the Convocation, or how Popes are chosen. Don’t watch that or sausage-making if you like either.

Absolute Monarchs is THE best history book. Readable, with juicy scandals. Familiar figures. Frederick Barbarossa, a vicious Holy Roman Emperor (redundancy mine) who is said to sleep in a cave, his red beard ever-growing, guarded by crows, until Germany needs him again. (Germany  may need him but Rome sure didn’t.) Also:

  • Otto of Wittgenstein, founder of the house of Wittlesbach, the ancestor of my King Ludwig II of Bavaria, whose dynasty endured for 700 years, quite undeservedly.
  • Eleanor of Aquitaine, portrayed in the fantastic film The Lion in Winter. “The wife of one of England’s greatest Kings, and the mother of two of the worst.” (You have to wonder if the asshole in the room is actually her.) The two worst kings, her sons, are Richard “the Lion-Hearted” and John I, signer of the Magna Charta.
  • The doomed Cathars, a “heretical” sect in France that, like the original inhabitants of the British Isles, believed in reincarnation. Read more about them in the fantastic horror series Angelus Trilogy by Jon Steele.
  • King Canute of England, who made a pilgrimage to Rome to see one of the earliest Pope’s investitures.
  • King William of Normandy, who killed Harold of England with an arrow through the eye at the Battle of Hastings–while flying a banner the Pope had sent him. And his short-lived son William Rufus, killed “accidentally” while hunting in the New Forest. I read about this in the hilarious cozy mystery Missing Susan by Sharon McCrumb.
  • Sultan Mehmet II, whom I first read about in the fantastic historical novel And I Darken, by Kiersten White. Mehmet was allegedly bisexual and fell in love with two hostages at his father’s court–the timid brother and fierce sister sired by Vlad Drakul of Wallachia.
  • The legendary Pope Joan, (aka Pope Agnes), possibly the reason for the Papal Throne with its keyhole cutouts. Is it a leftover Roman Empire birthing chair, or does it have those egg-shaped holes so a junior Cardinal can feel the Pope’s testicles to be SURE he’s a man…?
  • Henry VIII–NOT the first King who wanted the Pope to let him divorce his wife and marry his mistress.
  • Cardinal Richelieu and the Protestant King of Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus (I know of these 2 and the 30 Years War through the excellent alternative history series by Eric Flint and David Weber, starting with 1632.)
  • Maria Theresa of Austria who sacrifices the Jesuit Order in France for the chance of marrying her daughter into the Bourbon Line. Her daughter was Marie Antoinette and this was a terrible idea.

Big Enders or Little Enders?

In 865 Khan Boris I of Bulgaria converts to Catholicism, mainly because the Byzantine fleet is lying off his Black Sea coast, and his country is in the grip of the worst famine of the century. He gets upset with finding his country overrun with Greek and Armenian priests, “frequently at loggerheads with each other over abstruse points of doctrine incomprehensible both to himself and his bewildered subjects.” He knows the Church split between Rome and Constantinople can be used to his advantage, so he petitions Pope Nicolas with 106 points of Orthodox doctrine and social custom which conflict with Bulgarian traditions, and the Pope makes concessions.

  1. Trousers and turbans can be worn by men and women alike, but you have to take off your turban in church.
  2. When the Byzantines maintain that it is unlawful to wash on Wednesdays and Fridays, they are talking nonsense, nor is there any reason to abstain from milk or cheese during Lent. (A PBS documentary just showed a Bulgarian family making their own buttermilk and yoghurt, and suggested the reason Bulgarians are so long-lived is their protein-rich diet.)
  3. Bigamy, says the Pope, is out (to the disappointment of the Bulgarians), as is the Greek practice of divination by the random opening of the Bible.

Don’t Sack the Pope. Just. Don’t.

In 1167 Frederick Barbarossa sacks Rome, setting fire to Saint Peter’s Basilica. Never had there been such a desecration of the holiest shrine in Europe–the high altar stained with Christian blood, the marble pavements of the nave strewn with the dead and the dying. And this time the outrage was not the work of infidel barbarians, but of the emperor of Western Christendom. The author says with incredible irony, “The Christians discriminated against the Jews, but they persecuted each other.”

Frederick got his comeuppance, however, and despite my non-religiosity a little part of me kept shouting Divine Retribution, what?! Less than a week later, the imperial camp got struck with the Plague. “Within days it was no longer possible to bury all the dead, and the rising piles of corpses, swollen and putrefying in the merciless heat of a Roman August made their own grim contribution to the pervading horror.”

Casomir the Great
Casomir III, aka Casomir the Great

Casomir the Great–Actually Was

On a side note to the Plague: I Googled a plague map, and it shows the inexorable advance of the disease from the East across Western Europe, but it makes a circle around Poland. Why? One theory is that King Casomir was very forceful with his quarantine of traders and travelers, and of course Poland is landlocked so no plague ships. Also, the King gave sanctuary to huge numbers of Jews, whose religious books, especially Leviticus, forced them to wash their hands several times daily and bathe at least once per week. Hmmmm

Pope v.s. Antipope

Black AdderAlthough copiously footnoted, with a lengthy bibliography, which I always appreciate, the author made some assumptions about terms that I would know, and I didn’t. One was “antipope”. What the hell is an antipope? Is it like “the Antichrist”? Depends on who you ask. At one point in the late Medieval, or possibly early Renaissance, French clerics elected one pope and Roman clerics another. An antipope was like a pretender to the throne. The Sacred College of cardinals eventually declared those two popes not popes, and elected a third. Of course, the first two refused to step down.

The author then quotes the TV series Black Adder, in which Rowan Atkinson’s character is excommunicated. He asks which Pope has excommunicated him and is told, “All three of them.” Good times.

Other Interesting Facts

Just one year prior to the American Revolution of 1776, the last Protestant galley slaves were freed in Europe. The last Protestant pastor to be tortured for his heresy died. And in 1792, along with the French nobility dying on the scaffold, so did tons of Catholics–religion was put on trial just like the aristocracy. Guy Fawkes in England  a century prior was a Catholic trying to make England not Protestant anymore, not just revolting against the rulers.

And So Forth and So On

By the end of this book, I felt absolutely drunk with Popes. In just listing all their names, the author took up NINE PAGES. Well, he had to. There were that many. If I had a criticism it would be that from 1700 on, not as much time was spent on the later Popes, especially the “Nazi Pope,” formerly German Cardinal Ratzinger. To be honest, I skipped through the last portions of the book. I was exhausted.

The author spends a lot of time on the Papacy’s legacy of anti-Semitism. The Hitler years are fascinating, as well as what the Pope did and didn’t do, and how individual priests rescued Jews. There is the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul in 1981, which took place during my childhood. (I was startled to read that some experts the Bulgarian government may have been involved.)

Unfortunately the book stops with Pope Benedict, and his reign is given as 2005–. Since I am a big fan of the current Pope, (Pope Francis, year anno domini 2017) with his scientific background and his tolerance and kindness, I hope the author will publish and updated version of this book. I am also planning to read Pope Francis’s treatise on climate change, very soon.

Rating: Five Red Hats!


This Cold Heaven (Greenland)

book coverby Gretel Ehrlich

courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

This author is enamoured of all the things I hate…darkness, winter, cold, ice, snow. Perhaps understandable, given the fact that she’s been struck by lightning twice on her hot, dry Montana ranch in the summer, 8 years apart. After a hunting trip with the Greenlanders, she is nauseated by the smell of grass, and the return of the sunlight gives her a migraine. (I get depressed when there isn’t enough sunlight, and I love gardening–though not grass in particular.)

Anyway, some more differences between Gretel and me: She joyfully partakes of raw seal liver with her Greenlander hosts (I would like to become a vegetarian.) Gretel is overstimulated by returning to the small villages, wanting to be alone, while I’m a big city girl. She thinks idly about having the baby of a Japanese man who lives in the Arctic, while I lived in Japan and would never consider such a thing due to the inherent chauvinism of most of the men in that culture…I could go on and on! But sometimes, reading about our polar opposite (pardon the pun) can be good for us. It was on Facebook recently that we should read books we don’t like (so it must be true).

Arctic CircleHowever. Despite having ENORMOUS value judgements about  this author, I still enjoyed the book. Gretel Ehrlich is a great writer. Her descriptions of the snow and ice, fueled by her passion for it, are a joy to read. I wouldn’t be able to create even a paragraph–how much can you say about snow? Well, she can. Every formation is different in their moods, their subtle colors of pink and blue and yellow (I must be snow blind ‘cuz they all look white to me!)

The Arctic. No other place on Earth is like it. The people have lived in the same way, with the same customs, for thousands of years. The Eskimo culture is as old as the culture of China. When you look at a flat Mercator map, you don’t realize, as I didn’t, how connected the Arctic is. Because it’s a CIRCLE. Mercator disconnects it. When I pulled up a map of just the top of the world on the Internet, I understood why the Eskimos speak the same language in Canada, in Greenland, and in Alaska. Because their people have walked the circle, on foot, with dogs, since before there were nations as such.

The Dogs, the Dogs

I love animals more than I love people, and I won’t apologize for that. Eskimo culture is a hunting culture, and whEskimo dogsledile I know that they had to do it to survive in centuries gone by, I still had a lot of trouble reading about the modern-day killing of seals, whales, narwhals, polar bears, rabbits, terns, foxes etc. And then there was the treatment of the dogs. On just about every other page there was something that made me wince. To be fair, Gretel wasn’t entirely comfortable with it either, but she went along with it.

Dogs and dogsleds are vital to the Eskimo culture in Greenland. In Canada, they have been replaced with snowmobiles, and while I couldn’t help thinking good…even while I deplored that this change is slowly and insidiously destroying the Eskimo culture there.

Northern LightsAnyway, the Greenlander relationship with their dogs is complicated. The dogs on the sled team are fed first, before the humans. If that means the humans don’t eat, then they don’t eat. It’s more important to keep the dogs in good condition. However, even if meat is plentiful, the Eskimos only feed the dogs every two or three days on the theory that this way, they’ll be used to times when there is no food to eat. So the dogs are always hungry. The Eskimos say they love their dogs, but they’re prepared to eat them if they have to.

I, on the other hand, would rather die. In the Buddhist Asian tradition, all sentient life is equally valuable. On the other hand, I’m SURE the Buddha would not be judging these people the way that I am. I just can’t help it. I want the Eskimos to stop hunting and grow vegetables and love their dogs as themselves. Just as I wanted the Japanese to stop whale hunting, which they insist is their ancestral right. If it harms animals, and you don’t HAVE to do it to live in these modern times, then why?

A Word About the Word Eskimo

Houses in greenlandAt first, having worked for a Native American-owned company here in Spokane, I was shocked by Gretel’s use of the word Eskimo. This word was widely perceived as pejorative in the 1970s when I was growing up. The connotations were kind of “dirty savage”. The word may have come, Gretel says, from the French Esquimaux, which describes the precise bindings that the people would use on their mukluks.

At my old company, the preferred term for the native peoples of the U.S. is AI/AN…American Indian/Alaska Native. In Canada it is First Nations. But Gretel says the Greenlanders themselves often call themselves Eskimo, and I know Greenland has a different and less harsh history of colonization than the U.S. does, which is why I decided to go ahead and use the word, sparingly. As she does.

Greenland ice canyonGreenland was colonized by the relatively enlightened and socialistic Danes, rather than English-speakers, although the missionaries caused the usual problems, insisting that the indigenous people stop living all together in longhouses as umiak crews and live separately as nuclear families. (An umiak is like a big kayak with oars instead of paddles and it takes from 6 to 30 people to row.) The missionaries also made them move into wooden houses instead of their traditional sod huts. (Why? Wood has to be imported from Denmark, because Greenland has no trees. Talk about carbon footprint.) Something else that shocked the missionaries was the sex parties that the Greenlanders would have, where everyone gathers in one house, gets naked, they douse the blubber lantern, and you end up with whoever you end up with in the dark. I guess those months of total darkness are LONG and BORING! Ha ha ha.

A Word About Climate Change

BBC photo of vanishing Greenland iceGuys, the ice that the Eskimos need to drive their dogsleds over needs to be hard and fast, so the hunters and the dogs don’t fall into open water and drown. They call these gaps in the hard ice “drowning fields.” Scary! BUT, the polar ice caps are melting. There is less ice and more water. This is nothing less than a disaster for the native people up there, AND for us as well. There are bad microbes in the ice in Greenland that have been inactive for hundreds of thousands of years, but because of climate change, they’re waking up. We need to do what we can to stop it.

All in all, this is a superbly written book about a vanishing/changing culture that is so ancient it boggles the mind. The Greenlander culture deserves attention. They deserve to be able to preserve their way of life as much as possible (although I am glad that in times of famine, helicopters now drop off food supplies, and modern medicine is available.) Read this book. You won’t be able to put it down, although if you’re an animal lover, you may have to skip a few pages.

Rating: Five icebergs calving.


Wild Thorns (Palestine)

Wild Thorns book cover

by Sahar Khalifeh

Although I was lost in historical time until the narrator mentions Kissenger and the U.N., Wild Thorns is well-written, and the author does a good job of giving the reader multiple Palestinian points of view:

  1. Adil, who supports nine mouths plus his father’s ravenous kidney machine–a beast that’s never satisfied…
  2. Basil, the radicalized teen, who believes the old proverb “prison is for men”,
  3. Adil’s buffoonish father who spends his days in the ancestral home, holding forth to French journalists about Palestine’s vanished glories,
  4. Nuwar, Adil’s timid sister, too afraid to name the man she wants to marry, and
  5. Adil’s cousin Usama. Usama is what the news shows us in the West as the typical Palestinian: young, stubborn, and a terrorist. He’s returned to his homeland from a few years of working in the Gulf States so he can blow up the busses taking workers into Israel. That is, Palestinian workers, because his mentality is that “if you’re not actively resisting the occupation, you deserve what you get.”

What Do the Characters Want?

Medlar fruit
Medlar fruit, purchased by an Israeli family in the market. The Arab woman watching is bitter because her children can’t afford the fruit.

A common question among the MFA crowd. This novel does a good job of portraying the divide between the wants of:

1) the fanatical characters, who want to reverse the “insult” of the occupation following the disaster of ’48 and the catastrophe of ’68, and

2) the normal people who just want to get on with things and live the best lives they can.

The Palestinian characters see themselves purely as victims, with no sympathy or acknowledgement whatsoever for the Israeli victims of the Holocaust. They don’t seem to  know or care that their occupation is a direct consequence of their Arab neighbors having attacked Israel, unprovoked, in 1948 and again in ’68 (Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Lebanon).

What sucks is that the Palestinians weren’t the ones who attacked, but they get to suffer the consequences.

Palestine map 1923The characters know that all the talk of pan-Arab unity has been crap; that the rich in the surrounding Arab countries and in their own countries have let them down badly. That there are more divides in Palestine than Israeli occupiers/Palestinian occupied. There is some urban/rural class upheaval as workers leave their farms for Israeli factories–because they get paid more and have to bow and scrape less.

It’s a bit shocking to read Usama’s descriptions of a Palestine he remembers as green and lush, with exotic fruit trees, since what I see on TV is hot and dusty–squat concrete warrens overflowing with garbage. More shocking than the violence described in the novel is the lack of humanity on both sides: a Palestinian worker accidentally cuts his fingers off at his workplace, but the ambulance won’t pick him up because he didn’t purchase the right kind of insurance.

Israel map 2015
Isreal map 2015

Author Sahar is a woman. (It’s not always easy to tell with names from another culture.) But I felt the women in this novel were fairly cardboard characters. We don’t get a lot of their motivations or inner life. (Although one of the women does change her thinking slightly after a shocking act of violence in the market.)

I really liked the copious footnotes for Western readers, telling you what famous names, folklore, and novels you may not recognize the references. Without them I’d only have gotten half of the sweetmeat out of this book.

Dome of the RockI enjoyed the book and it was interesting.

However, I am still annoyed with violent Palestinians’ response to their condition: why is non-violence not an option? The Palestinian kids on TV, the vocal minority, they think that if they can just find the right kind of violence, it will work. I am over 40 years old and I can tell you, it never works.

The good, decent and peaceful Palestinians need to speak up and assert their will. They need to shut down Hammas and anything like it in order to get what they want. To get what they deserve. The right to live without fear, without violence. To live life in liberty, in the pursuit of love.

UPDATE October 18, 2015: This just happened in Nablus…the city in this book and the city the writer is from.


A Different Kind of Daughter (Pakistan)

by Maria Toorpaki

Courtesy of an Advanced Reader’s Copy from Auntie’s Bookstore.


book coverAnd I thought that Khalid Hosseini’s novel 1,000 Splendid Suns was hard to read. It just baffles me, the grip that chauvinism and entitlement have on the men of so many parts of the world. Allow me to reference my hometown for a moment:

When Robert Lee Yates was caught a few years ago (one of the worst serial killers in Washington State history), his daughter went on camera and said that while she was shocked and horrified that her father could have done these awful things–he was still her father and she still loved him. She still loved him! He killed over 18 prostitutes that we know of, and buried one in his backyard right under the noses of his wife and 5 children. He is a self-confessed necrophiliac, and yet his family professes to love him still!

map PakistanBy contrast, the narrator of this memoir mentions her mother watching a young girl being stoned to death for what we in the West view as a natural and trivial sexual contact, with her own father hurling the largest stone and being the coldest and most unforgiving in the face of her dying pleas. Because “his honor” has been shamed. Oh for God’s sake–grow up!

The Good News

However, the father in this book is exceptional. Were he a Pakistani or even a Syrian refugee, I would open my home to him in a second! He believes in women’s rights, allowing his wife to go to University, buying her a jeans jacket to wear around the house, and even teaching his children that the three most important words in the world are…

We the peopleWE THE PEOPLE

(If you were expecting I LOVE YOU, so was I! But this father shows it so strongly–he doesn’t need to say it too. Perhaps that is not the Waziri way.)

Yes, the father loves democracy. When little Maria sees that the life of girls is heavy and stifling and the life of boys is free and lovely, she takes all her elaborately brocaded and stiff dresses and burns them in the courtyard. She chops off her hair with a knife, and she tells her startled parents that from now on, her name is Ghengis Khan. And they allow it!

Memorial for murdered President Bhutto
Memorial for murdered President Bhutto

But you know that the time is going to come when Maria will no longer be able to pass as Ghengis. She’s already had some pretty awful things happen to her for daring to be a little girl who wants to play sports–she’s been spit on by adult men and cut with a riding crop across the face. (God help the LorGorBorTorQ person in Pakistan.)

Both Maria/Ghengis and her sister Ayesha (a more traditional girl) idealize their country’s Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, for her work with Pakistani girls, especially in tribal areas. They are devastated when she is murdered by extremists. As Maria/Ghengis remarks bitterly, in Pakistan, courage often gets you killed. But the little girls don’t give up. Ayesha’s father hauls her all over the country as a debate champion, and Maria/Ghengis becomes a squash star. But will their own countrymen allow them to fulfill their dreams? Read on to find out…

Taliban members in Northern Waziristan
Taliban members in Northern Waziristan

Final Rating: Five Squash Racquets: Chilling, and disturbing, but a necessary read and also a shining testament to courage, faith, and the power of belief. To fathers everywhere who believe in their daughters. My own father has always believed in my writing and supported it. (PS–thank you, Dad!)




Damages (Macedonia)

book coverby BK Bazhe

courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore


The ways of these Macedonian characters are not our ways. When B.K. Bazhe’s elderly mother gets sick, right after the death of her abusive husband, B.K. takes her to the doctor. But when the doctor tells him it’s cancer, B.K. knows what his mother wants, needs, and expects. He lies to her. The doctor encourages it. (Try that in America and you’d get sued for medical malpractice.)

B.K. tells Mother her pain comes from something trifling and she’ll soon get better. He keeps this up for almost two years–as she becomes bedridden, as she has abdominal surgery and gets a colostomy bag, as the terrible smell of her dying body overwhelms her small house and humiliates and frightens her.

A Contradiction in Terms

Macedonian churchAlthough he lies to his mother about her condition, ironically, B.K. himself does not like to be lied to. He is angry with his parents for lying to him about his adoption, for example. He also has little sympathy for his birth mother, who was raped at the age of 14. He keeps pressuring her to tell him who his birth father is, and refuses to believe that she doesn’t know the man’s name. He tells his birth mother about his abusive childhood–his father was an important Communist official who was violent at home–and seems to blame her for it. Like many people the world over, he doesn’t care how she has suffered, only how he has.

Marshall Tito
Marshal Tito (1892 – 1980), (Josip Broz), the Yugoslav leader and dictator. Original Publication: Picture Post – 5155 -pub. 1950

Not a Great Place to Be Gay

Although not the worst, either. Still, B.K. has had a difficult life being gay in Macedonia, and engages in self-destructive behavior as a young man. It is only when he runs away to Turkey and gets out from under the controlling thumb of his status-conscious parents that he’s able to explore who he really is.

The Macedonian attitudes portrayed in this book toward women’s issues and adoptees, according to this narrator, are shocking, as is their access to modern healthcare (almost nil). One of the reasons that B.K. forgives his adoptive parents for so much, and tends to his dying mother personally, is because he says that Macedonians think adopted kids will never bond to their adoptive parents. B.K. is determined to prove them wrong, taking on all hospice tasks for his mother, including changing her colostomy bag and washing all her nasty things.

It’s a good thing he wants to do this and is able to take time off from his job in America and his lover Fred, because according to him, almost nobody in Macedonia wants to take care of old people, let alone cancer patients. The one nurse he gets is a Bulgarian woman whom he suspects of stealing his mother’s jewelry.

Map of MacedoniaHis mother, wanting to avoid conflict, insists that she gave the woman the stuff, even though B.K. knows she didn’t. On a visit from America, B.K. discovers that the nurse doesn’t change the colostomy bag often enough, and the neighbors say she sometimes starves his mother so that she won’t produce any waste. She also yells at the old woman.

This is an easy read, despite several graphic scenes of sexual abuse, rape and violence.

In terms of the country’s history, it is like looking through the small end of a telescope (BK’s life) up at the larger events of the country. In BK’s circles, Marshall Tito is spoken of as a hero who united all the ethnic groups and created something good. His death and the crumbling of Yugoslavia is felt with regret. And, as a staunch former Communist who has seen the rise of Christian nationalism (he despises the rebellious Albanians) and Islamic fundamentalism, BK disparages religion in the strongest terms.

A very interesting, very honest memoir. Worth reading. Three vials of morphine.


The Skull Mantra (Tibet)

  • book coverby Eliot Pattison
  • Book courtesy of Auntie’s Bookstore

Wow. Thanks to Janet for suggesting this amazing mystery novel, set in occupied Tibet. Brilliant writing and well-rounded characters, but I had to keep putting it down. Because I was getting so outraged at the Chinese government’s treatment of Tibetans. Atrocious. Ongoing. Shameful.

The plot: A prison road crew on a forced construction project finds a headless body. The road crew is composed of Chinese murderers, Tibetan religious prisoners, including an old lama, and the disgraced Chinese Inspector Shan. So Shan is “voluntold” (my term, not in the book) to solve the case for the seemingly inhumane Colonel Tan. Desecration of a Tibetan Buddhist sacred cave is about to follow.

But Wait, It’s Not So Simple

Further characters: American do-gooders, greedy Chinese bureaucrats, whole Tibetan gompas (temples) of Buddhist believer prisoners, scary shamen/sorcerers, barefoot children running around the sky burial zone tended by the untouchable class…this mystery has them all.

free TibetWhat I liked about the characters in the novel–they were conflicted. They were human. Against the stark background of the Chinese rape of Tibet, which is just plain wrong and no two ways about it–the author writes Chinese characters who act in ways that are cruel but then have moments of humanity where you see they’re also victims of the Chinese Communist system.

I liked the scenes in which various prisoners would move to protect the guards, or visa-versa, against all expectation. (One striking aspect of the Tibetan Buddhist religion is that when “the knobs” have the prisoners surrounded, and the Chinese are about to carry out a mass execution, the crowds surrounding the prison start praying–for the souls of the killers.)

Potala Palace, Lhasa
Potala Palace, Lhasa

I liked the scenes where the humanity of seemingly bad characters were revealed. For example, the mean prison Sergeant who keeps Shan under guard while he’s investigating has a dead father that he misses. Sergeant Feng is chubby, and when he discovers that the men call him “Momo” (dumpling) behind his back he’s heartbroken.

I liked the way the author portrayed the Americans bumbling around the mountains trying to protect Tibetan treasures as part of Our World Heritage, meaning well but completely ignorant. For Inspector Shan, their innocence is the most irritating thing about them.

Buddhist monk beaten by Chinese soldierAside from actually travelling to Tibet and meeting all sorts of people, this novel is the next best thing. And a lot safer.

Rating: 5 momo dumplings

One of the best mysteries I’ve picked up in a long, long time. It’s part of a series so I plan to read all the Inspector Shan books now. I’m certain I’ll learn a lot more about Tibet that way.


Free Tibet

The website for the 14th (Dalai Llama): A Force for Good


Desperate in Dubai (United Arab Emirates or UAE)

book coverby “Ameera al-Hakawati”

courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore


The author’s name is a pseudonym. I imagine it would have to be, for her own safety. This book is a beach read, a summer treasure, a ginormously trashy guilty pleasure. It peels back some veils…literally.

Guilty. Pleasure.

The four wealthy Emiratii women in the book are all in search of fun. (Truly, they’re looking for meaning in their lives, through love, but they’re not allowed to have any meaning despite religion, and some of us just aren’t religious.) So they pursue dating, drinking, drugs, and sexual pleasure. And man, do they feel guilty about it. Not only from a religious and familial and moral standpoint, but from fear of being caught. Getting caught is no joke. One of the women’s cousins has died in an implied honor killing. If you play with fire in Dubai, you not only can get burned, you can get dead. This woman’s own parents and two brothers stop mentioning the dead girl’s name, paint over her room, and pretend that she never existed.

As the book begins, we are introduced to four different women:

  1. Lady Luxe, a highly-sexualized member of a wealthy and powerful Emeratii family named only as the “X”s who disguises herself with a blonde wig, blue contacts, and the name “Jennifer” to go clubbing
  2. Leila, a Lebanese woman who left the bombs and sirens for what she hoped would be a safe marriage in a foreign, sun-drenched country
  3. Sugar, an Indian woman with a painful past that will keep most Arab men from marrying her
  4. Nadia, newly-married to a once ardent British husband who has grown indifferent over the past year

hotelTheir lives, their lovers, their pasts and their futures all intertwine in clever and dangerous ways. Soon the stakes stack up higher than the skyscrapers of Dubai. Despite the disturbing underpinnings of women’s lives in the UAE, this was a fun poolside read filled with high-end wining, dining and shopping. Name brands and looking good fill up almost all of the women’s time…but each is becoming increasingly desperate to land a rich, good-looking, lenient and loyal husband. The first two are no problem; the latter two a big one.

Honey, Where Are Your Girlfriends?

hotel dininig roomThe women seem to have zero role model presence in their lives: No older women they can look up to. Their mothers are either dead, divorced and returned to the West, or just absent. To their fathers and older brothers the girls are commodities, objects, or just nothings. The only constructive relationships they have with men seem to be with their younger brothers, who are unfortunately powerless to protect them. And their “friends” are eager to betray them for the first man who comes along.

luxury perfumeIronically, the women also treat the men as objects sometimes: Lady Luxe, a.k.a. Miss X, a.k.a. Jennifer, calls her crush Mr. Delicious, while Sugar names hers Goldenboy and Nadia calls hers Prince Charming. It’s a way of trying to balance out the power differential, of pretending that it doesn’t matter so much. But it does. It really, really does.

This is a romance novel, pure and simple, so I am not critical of the fact that it isn’t a social critique. However I did find it curious that none of the four women in the story ever even think of enriching their lives with art, charity, hobbies, pets, sports or any of the other options available to people, especially wealthy people, to occupy their time. All their waking time is spent taking care of their bodies–massages, spas, salons, plastic surgery, makeup, clothes, eating, drinking, dancing, sex, repeat ad nauseam. Their souls, their psychic selves, their self esteem–all that is invisibly dying. Two of the women have jobs, but they don’t seem fulfilling in any way. One woman has won an award for Abaya Designer of the Year, but she’s mostly running this business to impress her father, rather than for any sense of self-worth or satisfaction.

poolLady Luxe, out of all the women, is greedy for consumption–she wants more. Always more. More travel, more experiences, more men, more sex, more more more. If you think America is a disgusting example of conspicuous consumption, wait until you read about the UAE. As with any capitalist system, those on the bottom get stepped on, and the darker your skin, the worse you are treated in this place.

Sugar, for example does not want to admit that she is from India, because in the UAE, that usually means you are a maid and you clean toilets for a living.

The Good Girls

hotel pool viewNot all the women of Dubai flirt with danger; dice with death. Lady Luxe’s two wild cousins, Moza and Rowdha have made good marriages and despite being educated in the UK, aren’t too discontent with the Arab world. They live in Saudi Arabia but come to Dubai frequently to visit.

“Contraty to the stereotypes of Arab women miserable at the mercy of vindictive Khaleeji men (Khaleej is Eastern Arabian Peninsula culture), both sisters were relatively content with their choices; Moza’s husband  happily helped his wife to open her own beauty salon in Jeddah, while Rowdha’s encouraged her to complete her MBA at Harvard.

“Rowdha was never at want for anything, but did wish she saw her husband a little more often. But his time was limited, especially since he had recently taken a new wife when she refused to bear any more children for fear of ruining her figure. She was far from upset by the marriage though, polygamy being a reality in many Khaleeji women’s lives.

eating outside“In fact, she enjoyed the extra freedom it afforded her. Having mothered two children, her duty was fulfilled and she was more or less left to her own devices. She spent her summers in Chelsea with her children, her autumns on the Upper East Side, her winters in Riyadh and her springs in Montmarte. Her kids, currently homeschooled by a range of tutors and raised by a score of maids, were left relatively unaffected by their mother’s tendency to take flight whenever it took her fancy.”

Constructive Criticism

mosqueI could have used some italics and footnotes as the unfamiliar Arabic language terms are sprinkled through the text like sultanas in cake; you never know when you’re going to bite into one and have to stop and Google.

I could figure out halaal and haram foods, and all the words for the clothing used to cover the female body: hijab, abaya, shayala, etc. But what in the world is meant by:

  • and if she got extra revenge out of it, well that would just be the syrup on the knafah (the icing on the cake)
  • wearing a grotesque T-shirt that smelled vaguely of jibneh (a feta-like cheese)
  • Do you hear that? The adhaan, you mean? (Call to prayer)
  • she has joined them as they race home from shisha evenings (in the UAE, there are many shisha restaurants where the double-apple or the mint-grape shisha is smoked…it is pipe tobacco, sometimes in a water pipe)
  • says the guy whose career in government is as menial and unimaginative as his noo-noo (well, okay, I got THAT one…Lol)

sunsetThe book could have used an American editor–I found some prepositional phrases that were a bit off, such as Leila feeling like a “cat on heat” and Sugar having once “stepped on dog poop”–in both cases the correct useage would be IN…and the tenses aren’t always consistent. Sugar’s narrative, for example, is usually in present tense but sometimes drifts into the past.

All together, however, this was a very enjoyable read, and I felt the whole time like I was immersed in the top layer of the UAE.

UAE manFive Facts You Didn’t Know About the UAE

  1. shamal winds: special winds that blow off the desert in spring and fall
  2. the Ruler, briefly mentioned in the novel: the UAE consists of 7 separate Emirates, each with an absolute Monarch. The ruler of Abu Dhabi, the capitol, is the head Monarch.
  3. Thanks to the oil boom of the 1970s, indigenous Emeratiis make up only 1/5 of the population.
  4. sharia law: in the UAE, alcohol use, premarital sex, and adultery are all legally punishable by flogging, and/or death
  5. according to the DK World Atlas I purchased in the 1990s, the UAE is “known as an advocate for moderation in the Arab World”

povertyRating: Five Cowboy Hats to the author on your debut novel, (Although not the slimy cowboy who went with them) . Stay safe, “Ameera”.

Poverty in Dubai: it does exist, and it’s a stark contrast.



I Am Nujood, Age 10, and Divorced (Yemen)

IamNujoodNujoodWestby Nujood Ali

Courtesy of Auntie’s Bookstore

Stellar. Stomach-turning. Non-fiction.

Born in 1998, Nujood Ali went through some hardships in her young life in Yemen’s capital as her father chewed khat and failed to look for work. She was one of a passel of poverty-stricken children (her mother had about 8 that lived and the second wife had five; the oldest handicapped). At the age of 9, Nujood was married off to a pervert in his 30s with predictable results, even though he promised her father he wouldn’t touch her until puberty.

map of YemenBut Nujood fought back. When her mother couldn’t help her and her father wouldn’t, she ran away and found a court of law and a brave female lawyer who helped her get a divorce…and then get back to the business of being a child. She then found out what had happened to her 2 older sisters, who didn’t fight back.

This was an incredible and a fast read. Told by Nujood herself with little sentimentality and a preface and epilogue by adult women, it glosses over the really bad stuff but still gets its point across.

Nujood was the first child bride in Yemen to win a divorce, but since her courageous act of defiance there have been others. At the time I am writing this blog, Nujood is 15 years old.

Yemen cityYou just can’t believe that so many patriarchial societies around the globe have insitutionalized child rape — and which see little girls like Nujood who try to leave abusive situations (her “husband” also beat her and his mother used her as a slave) as staining their family’s honor. The little girls run away. They name names. And for that, they are vulnerable to being murdered by a man committing an “honor crime”.

The book still manages to give you an idea of some of the more palatable aspects of life in Yemen however — its history as Happy Arabia, the cuisine, some pastoral scenes with sheep nearby and computers far away.

Rating: Five Bleating Sheep.

I wouldn’t mind visiting Yemen, as long as I had a gender change first. (Nobody could know.)