A Short History of Kosovo (Kosovo)

kosovo map

by Noel Malcolm

If you want to learn about the history of the Balkans, this is an enjoyable though very slow way to go. That’s not a criticism of the writer, by the way–there is a lot to get through here.

Note: The country of Kosovo was created when it declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

The first two chapters of this history are a glorious, confused dream for linguist nerds like me as they list all the tribes who passed through and lived in the area, and all the languages spoken there. I wanted to roll in the pages like a dog in dead fish. (However, they really could have used a few maps on facing pages plus an Indo-European language tree like the one I’ve imported into this blog. You’re welcome. ūüėČ

Serbian Bosnia and Albanian language tree

But back to the tribes: Since Kosovo is just a short sea away from Italy, many groups in the area spoke Latin as a gift from the Roman Empire; others were Greek speakers from Byzantine days. The Serbs and the Croats spoke basically the same Slavic language but wrote it differently; Serbian uses the Cyrillic alphabet and Croatian uses the Roman. The book also notes that although the two ethnicities were once subject to the Pope, most Croats are now Roman Catholic, and most Serbs are Serbian Orthodox, from the Greek Orthodox. (See my blog on the Holy See for the split, which happened in the 11th century.)

Kosovo's National Library
Kosovo’s National Library

The tribes:

  • Arnaut (proto-Albanians)
  • Avars (Turikik tribe)
  • Bessi (Thracian Bulgars)
  • Bulgars (Turkik tribe)
  • Cams
  • Gegs (Northern Albanians)
  • Goths (Germanic tribe)
  • Huns (Mongolian and proto-Hungarian)
  • Ilyrians (Western Balkans)
    • –Extinct, as is their language
  • Labs
  • Thracians (Eastern Balkans)
    • –Extinct, but bits of their language were preserved in the formal liturgy of the Serbian Orthodox Church from approximately AD 500
  • Tosks (Southern Albanians)
  • Slavs (proto-Serbs and proto-Croats)
  • Vlachs (Aromanians/Romanians)

Men of the Mountains

This bridge in Prizren was built in the 1300s, long before America was even a twinkle in Amerigo Vespucci's eye
This bridge in Prizren was built in the 1300s, long before America was even a twinkle in Amerigo Vespucci’s eye

The fascinating facts just keep on coming in this book, and the next part starts with the notion that the word “Albania” comes from the Indo-European “Alb”, meaning “Alp.” The author then draws a parallel between the Highland people of Scotland–“Albainn” in Gaelic–and the ethnic Albanians and Kosovars. He claims a similarity of isolation, pastoral warrior culture, and the independence of mind referred to as being particular to mountain tribes. For example, in mountain culture, women often become fierce fighters along with their men. For another example, historically speaking, the Kosovans were known for giving their Ottoman Turkish overlords hell, whenever the latter tried to seize the former’s weapons. In Kosovar culture, a man’s weapons represent his honor and prying them out of his living hands can lead to blood feuds like those in the novels of excellent Albanian writer¬†Ishmael Kadare. (In a blood feud, you can kill ANY member of the offender’s family, even if they have done nothing to you and yours. It is estimated that a single blood feud could wipe out up to 600 people!)

One of the flags Kosovo has had over the decades...Hm, sure looks like the flag of Albania.
One of the flags Kosovo has had over the decades…Hm, sure looks like the flag of Albania.

Kosovo: The Empire Years

The middle chapters of this book took forever to read, being as crammed with dates and battles and ethnic groups as a Tokyo subway at rush hour. Fortunately there is only one crucial date to remember: The Battle of Kosovo in 1389, when the Ottoman Turks defeated an army led by the Serbian prince making assimilation inevitable. From there the book sweeps you into the Empire years: and first into the formation of the soldiers called Janissaries. Standard operating procedure for Ottoman soldiers was to take 50 young boys from the villages in conquered areas and send them to Istanbul to be trained to fight for their invaders. The author makes the case that it wasn’t as bad as it sounds to American ears, since the peasants actually had it better under the Ottomans than under the medieval Serbian kingdom. And the peasants in Kosovo weren’t alone: you can find Turkish Baths and Mughal doors all over Eastern Europe and all the way to Vienna.

But no Empire lasts forever.  I next read about the revolt of the Young Turks in the 1800s. About the growing mismanagement of the empire, and the massacre of the Armenians. This slaughter may have had its root in religious differences, since the Armenians had been majority Christian since the year 300.

Revisionist History
I appreciated that the author, being neither Kosovo Albanian nor Kosovo Serb, didn’t have a dog in this fight–the fight to interpret history through our modern lens. Everyone does it, of course. According to the author, the modern majority Serb narrative is one of continuous oppression by the Turks, while the story the Albanians tell is much different. Yet, as the author points out, nationalism is really a modern concept that you can’t apply backwards to history. He does have an opinion on the war in the former Yugoslavia that took place between Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia, and that opinion is that the Serbs were definitely in the wrong.

Sometimes when an author states his strong opinion as fact, I question his judgment. But in this case, I agreed. He presented so many facts. So many true facts. I found myself wishing I had had this book as an exchange student to Pecs, Hungary, in 1991 during the war. Like many, or dare I even say most Americans at that time I didn’t understand why these white Europeans were fighting each other. Well, I do now.

Book Rating: Five stars over the Balkans.



Tales of the Tikongs (Tonga)

book coverby Epeli Hau’ofa

93 pages

This is a seriously sarcastic little book. If you took Terry Pratchett, Robert Aspirin, Carl Hiaasen and Joseph Heller and mixed them all together, then put them in traditional Tikong dress, you’d have half an idea of how funny this book is. It’s a very dry wit though–and at times rowdy and ribald. I enjoyed the heck out of it.

The book is made up of linked short stories, with each chapter telling you about a particular Tikong person, and some character overlap. There’s a man who starts his own church when the “Sabbatarians” don’t cut it for him; a man who has left the island to be educated abroad and is no longer considered a “real Tikong”; there is a fisherman who takes a development loan from a New Zealand NGO and becomes so miserable that he sinks the boat he was given in the ocean by chopping a hole in it with an ax.

One critical note: Women only appear in the periphery here. And I did have the sarcastic thought while reading, that the Tikong love of doing nothing most certainly does not apply to women, who are likely the invisible ones here providing bread for the menfolk, bringing up the children, and cleaning their houses, as usual.

map of TongaThe island of Tiko is fictional, but it stands for so many real island countries in Oceania. The author was born in Papau New Guinea to Tongan parents who were missionaries. He went to school in both those countries as well as Fiji and Australia. He worked as the Director of the Rural Development Centre in Tonga which is undoubtedly where he picked up a healthy boatload of skepticism about NGOs and South Pacific island nation governments alike.

The Characters

beach houseThere are two kinds of locals in Tiko. Those who want absolutely NO D-E-V-E-L-O-P-M-E-N-T and those who do want it. Those who don’t include Manu, an old islander who occasionally rides around the island with hand-lettered signs that say things like DEVELOPMENT IS A LIE, TIKO KNOWS SWEET BUGGER ALL, AUSTRALIAN COWS ARE QUEER AND NEW ZEALAND BULLS CAN’T DO NO DAMN GOOD EITHER. They include men like Sione, who has 16 children and rests every day except for the Sabbath. He loves the International Expert Mr. Marv Dolittle, sent to Tiko from The Department of Aboriginal Affairs in Canberra, Australia, because his name Dolittle, makes him think the white man is “one of us”. He spends his days at the office actively trying to do as little as possible–sleeping and playing cards with his secretary.


Those who do not want D-E-V-E-L-O-P-M-E-N-T include Sailosi, the Important Person who was so inspired by the speech of His Excellency Tiko’s Paramount Chief, who on the day of independence denounced the running dogs of Imperialism and Capitalism. He stops his typist from wearing lipstick because “it’s a foul foreign custom. While you’re at it, get rid of the French perfume, too. It smells froggy. Use the great Tikong all-purpose coconut oil…” They include men like the preacher who has a single cow, and is approached by a man who has a single bull. The preacher reacts with horror to the suggestion that his lovely cow should “date” this bull. He strikes the man in the face for even suggesting it…my cow shall remain an innocent virgin…

The movers and shakers:

Tonga tourist mapThose who do want D-E-V-E-L-O-P-M-E-N-T on Tiko include Mr. Alvin Lowe, aka “Sharky”, of Alice Springs. He is extremely patronizing. “You no can speak English good?” He says to the fisherman/gardener Ika Levu, “switching to the language he used when talking to simple natives. “You no can savvy?” He yells after Ika Levu expresses doubt about taking out a development loan.

“Gawd! Me talk talk all same simple something na you no can savvy! Whassamatter? Me think think head belong you too much dumdum na full up shit something no good true! All right me all same try one more time yet, na you try savvy good or I’ll bloody well bash your coon head in, ok?”

The endeavors of the Wise Men who are from foreign countries don’t turn out well on Tiko. For example, they give the men cows and bulls to start great herds of cattle. But every time someone dies, the new ranchers are expected to hold a great feast and butcher one of the beasts. Because on Tiko, you share. Of course this concept is completely foreign to Capitalism. The running dogs from New Zealand belittle the running dogs from Australia, and visa-versa. Savvy Tikongs play them against each other. It is sad, infuriating, and hilarious all at once.

Rating: Five delicious mutton flaps! (Mutton flap is a cheap cut from the ribs of the sheep. It is very fatty, and very much enjoyed in the South Pacific.)



Blood of Belvidere (Grenada)

book coverby Dunbar Campbell

Based on the modern metric of ACEs: Adverse Childhood Experiences, this novel’s young protagonist, Scott MacDonald, should expect an addictive adulthood. His father was a drunk, and his father’s father was a drunk. Scott often didn’t have enough to eat and had to wear his cousin Oliver’s hand-me-down clothes. Scott saw his mother get slapped around, yet despite having 4 children to think about, Mommy did not leave his father. Dad caused the deaths of the children’s pets:¬† First Trini, the pigeon that flew to Grenada from Trinidad, and later Rex, the dog that Mr. Farrow gave the kids to protect them.

We know now IRL that even one ACE can reduce a person’s life expectancy by 20 years, and Scott has more bad luck to dodge than even that. A murderer called Planass, who keeps getting released from prison early by a corrupt government, has it in for Scott and his brother Rodney due to unresolved issues with their father, Hector MacDonald.

You know that bit in the Bible in Exodus (and Numbers and Deuteronomy and Jeremiah) where it says, “And the sins of the father shall be visited upon the children, unto the third and the fourth generation…”?) Besides thinking that was massively unfair, I used to think it referred to genetic diseases like diabetes. Not in this novel. In this novel it is a curse, visited upon General Malcolm MacDonald when he defeated a Grenada slave revolt led by Frenchman Julien Fedon.

Fedon’s revenge was to curse his family from 1795 unto the present day…actually seven or eight generations I believe.

Grenada mapThe Duncans and the MacDonalds bear this curse for supporting the British and being British.

Poor old Scott is a pretty nice guy, but his Dad Hector is an abusive drunk who has caused his family to hate him. Of course, he has plenty of pain in his own past. Pa, the grandfather, was a man everyone hated. They are all outcasts from Belvidere, the Fedon family plantation on the island. Looming over everything is Mount Qua Qua where Fedon was defeated and disappeared. Because his body was never found, the legend is that the black magic he learned from his Yoruba grandmother, brought from Nigeria as a slave woman, allowed him to escape and to live forever. He is said to roam the island on stormy nights on his white horse.

Grenada beachThe 4 children’s only protector on the island is Neil Farrow, a one-legged elderly black man who spent 3 years in a British prison for saving a white officer’s life. “They wanted us to dig trenches; they didn’t want black Grenadians killing white Germans,” he explains. (Blew my mind; obviously true.) Mr. Farrow lives next door to the MacDonalds and is the self-appointed guardian of the children. There is some unexplained black magic there. And hints that he is somehow wrapped up in, or perhaps related to, the legend of Fedon.

Grenada on the World Stage

port with lots of housesI never understood why we (the USA) parachuted into Grenada in 1983. There was Vietnam before I was born and then our embassy in Iraq was seized and Canada hid the hostages next door, and then suddenly this island I never heard of was in the news. Why? I think it had to do with Ronald Reagan’s fear of Communism. That sucks.

When you hear the word Grenada, you probably think of Spain. The island was briefly claimed for Spain when Christopher Columbus sailed past it, but it was the home of Arawak Indians for 1,000 years before that. It is thought the Arawaks fled to the island in canoes from the Amazon during tribal warfare. They lived for an era the length of the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace, before the Carib Indians found them and invaded. The Caribs lived on Granada for 500 years before the Europeans came, fighting amongst themselves for control. The French held the island for awhile before the British took it eventually ceded it to the native Grenadians. Then there was big trouble.

In the novel, one of the villains driving the story engine is Gabbard, a pig of a man who seized control of Grenada in the wake of its independence from Britain. This piece of work is a living embodiment of the proverb that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Yet Gabbard identifies with the national hero Fedon, claiming everything he does is “for God and Fedon”. IRL Fedon, the son of a French Catholic plantation owner and a free Colored mulatto woman, would have hated him. Gabbard’s chief henchmen are Planass and Rabid, bad men who killed the father of Scott’s girlfriend as he smuggled rum from Venezuela into the island (he was cutting into their profits).


This novel was a good read, in which the day-to-day lives of ordinary Grenadians like the village’s two World War I veterans, were seamlessly interwoven with larger national events.

I got a real feel for Grenada from this novel:

  • The smell of mangoes and the sound of the waves crashing on the beach, without which Scott has a hard time sleeping
  • The sounds of Chinatown, where the prostitutes roam and the men drink shots of rum and cans of Carib beer
  • The sincere efforts of the students to follow in the footsteps of Castro and the Communist Revolution in Cuba, just as their ancestors were inspired by the French Revolution
  • The struggles of women to become independent from abusive men (emotionally and financially)
  • The efforts of the descendants of slaves, indentured servants, and their oppressors to free themselves from the long shadows of the past

Rating: Five bowls of spicy fish stew with figs!


What My Body Remembers (Denmark)

more Hvidovreby Agnete Friis

Hvidovre, Copenhagen. A concrete block apartment house in a run-down part of town.

Single mother Ella’s body literally remembers the trauma she suffered as a child–but she (her mind) doesn’t. When Ella’s PTSD is triggered, she shakes uncontrollably and sometimes passes out. It’s scary for her 11-year-old son Alex to watch. Ella’s only friends, her elderly neighbors Rosa and Jens, try to look out for her and the boy, but they’re both alcoholics. It isn’t easy.

Klitmoller beachWhen Ella was a small child, her father was convicted of murdering her mother. After that, Ella was passed around from one foster home to another. She hasn’t spoken to her father in 20 years, or her grandmother (her father’s mother).

But when the Welfare starts making noises about taking Alex away, Ella cuts and runs north to West Jutland, where she must start to confront her past.

Something is Fishy in West Jutland

book coverWhat My Body Remembers was an unusual take on the Nordic crime novel, which I love. The crime is in the past; the novel is a frame story. The protagonist is far from dark, violent detective Harry Hole–and she’s not the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo either, although at times she can be just as hostile. She’s not a detective: she is a single mother trying to raise her son. She doesn’t WANT to solve the crime; she wants to escape from it. But the past just won’t let go.

Ella is, of course, a flawed character. She drinks vodka to self-medicate, and smokes too much. She loves her son passionately, even as she understands that he’s a pre-teen and she, and their poverty, are starting to embarrass him. To make ends meet, they collect cans. Ella sometimes shoplifts for the “extras” the dole doesn’t provide–chocolate cookies, a bottle of whiskey, some chewing gum. Alex can’t afford the name-brand clothes and shoes that other boys his age have.

In Klitmoller, though, none of that matters. Alex romps down the dunes, through the surf, looks for amber on the beach, fishes, and goes surfing with a kindly hot young dude called Magnus, who has his eye on Ella. The North Sea shore in the book is just as windy and chilly as I remember it. (My family of origin is from Denmark, in the East Jutland.) And everybody eats liver pate on rye bread. Yum!

Corn Cob, Who’s Your Friend?

Ella has poor judgment when it comes to making friends. Here she is talking to Rosa:

Klitmoller on the map“We’d had this conversation hundreds of times before, practically word for word, but Rosa had no sympathy for social aberrations of this kind. Her life–as I had come to know it in the two years we’d lived in the apartment next door–was little more than an endless row of repetitions.

“Morning coffee with the husband at eight, shopping at Netto at ten, rye bread with meat and raw onions at twelve. Then, two hours on the sofa with an indefinite number of Kodimagnyl and Valium swimming in her blood. Cake, coffee, and TV at three. Dinner with the husband at six. Some kind of fried meat, potatoes, and cooked vegetables. Then more TV, more coffee, and a stack of smokes. Washing was done Monday, Lotto Wednesday and Saturday.”

Hvidovre Hey, this could have been my grandmother’s life if our ancestors had stayed in Europe. Because we were never wealthy people. And alcoholism runs in my family too.

Although Rosa and Jens are like her family, Ella doesn’t trust easily and she does not make new friends. A man named Thomas tries to reach out to her, but she snaps at him. (She doesn’t remember their early friendship, or anything before the age of eight). An artist called Barbara moves in with her, trying to help her using hypnosis. Ella comes to dislike Barbara but is too weak to kick her out. She needs another adult around to take care of Alex when she has one of her fits.

Klitmoller dunesOf course, Barbara is not who she seems…although her German Shepherd Lupo is delightful.

An easy read. This book is a thriller, and while I saw some of the plot twists coming a kilometer away, there was one surprise at the end that floored me. It was a doozy.

Rating: Five cockleshells!

More Super Scandinavian Crime by Women:

  • Anne Holt
    • Heroine Hanne Wilhelmsen is a cranky lesbian police officer in Oslo who is constantly frustrated by the constraints of a shoestring budget and superiors who expect miracles. Start with The Blind Goddess.
  • Camilla Lackberg
    • In The Preacher, one of my favorites, 2 young girls have been missing since 1979. When another disappears, Detective Patrik Hedstr√∂m must solve literary conundrums in a race to save her life.
  • Agnete Friis
    • Her debut novel,¬†The Boy in the Suitcase,¬†won an award for Best Danish Thriller of the Year. The MC, Nina Borg, is a Red Cross nurse, wife, and mother of two. She’s also a compulsive do-gooder who can’t say no when someone asks for help‚ÄĒeven when she knows better.




Sun, Sand, Murder (British Virgin Islands)

book coverby John Keyse-Walker

As I was reading this delightful cozy mystery set on the island of Anagada, the phrase “Land of Love and Drowning” kept drifting through my mind. Why? Ah yes…

The Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique, though set mostly on St. Thomas in the American Virgin Islands, has a main character whose mother was born on Anagada. So it was quite interesting to compare how the two different authors treated the island. In The Land of Love and Drowning, Anagada is mysterious, desolate, slow, magical and wild, with a legendary feel. In Sun, Sand, and Murder, it is brisk and modern–kind of like the setting in the BBC series¬†Death in Paradise. Although both MCs are descended from slaves, Sun, Sand, and Murder‘s Special Constable Teddy Creque is not haunted by history.¬† He suffers no historical trauma.

lobsterWhich is a good thing, because he’s got other problems. His marriage is falling apart–he’s cheating on his wife with this hot helicopter pilot– and he’s in trouble with his boss. There hasn’t been a murder on Anagada for 20 years, until De White Rasta stumbles over one on the beach at Spanish Camp. While trying to protect the body from being eaten completely by land crabs and seagulls, Teddy disturbs the crime scene and almost gets fired. Oh, and he pukes 3 times. I don’t blame him. (I’m also off seafood for awhile.)

BVI mapOur New Friends

De White Rasta is one of my favorite characters in this book, or possibly ever. He speaks with a fake Jamaican accent, and is always stoned but happy. His real name is Lord Anthony Wedderburn, and he escaped from England as a young man and didn’t even go back for his father’s funeral. Despite his mildly hedonistic exterior, he has a good soul with hidden depths, which we plumb later.

The lady who runs the bar at Cow Wreck Beach is also cool. Belle makes conch fritters and cooks six-pound lobsters with panache. She also lets De White Rasta crash on an Army cot behind her place (he is homeless) as long as he clears out before the customers arrive.

map of BVI and AVIWendell the grumpy treasure hunter and his silent mistress Marie are also interesting. There are always treasure hunters on Anagada, thanks to Pirate Bone and Pirate Something Else during the 1600s. Wendell finds cannon balls and buttons and other historical detritus. but he has yet to find The Big One. One of his pet rants is that there is no such thing as a true treasure map.

A conch shell on the beachLike the other characters, Teddy is very likable but flawed and troubled. He has to work 3 jobs in order to keep food on the table for his 2 kids. His wife Icilda works long hours as a waitress and they barely see each other. Teddy is the island’s customs officer, a Special Constable (one step lower on the ladder than a uniformed policeman) and he works at the power plant. The “belongers” on the island have the usual “been here’s” attitude to tourists: we like your money, but sometimes you irritate us. Being from a tourist town myself, I get it. (One Winter Carnival when my brother was especially annoyed, he coined the term “touron”–a combination of tourist and moron.) Anyway, when one of the generators at the power plant dies, Teddy has to decide which side of the island loses power so they don’t blow the whole thing. He has to decide between The Settlement, where the belongers live, or the other side with the tourist hotels. It is no contest. The belongers always lose, because everyone on the island knows the value of tourism.

The Settlement houses
The Settlement

This was a fun, easy to read romp through Anagadan history (pirates, treasure, Arawak and Carib Indians, and a mid-20th century scammer called Nigel Brooks, who stole millions from the government). The modern stuff was fun too. Fishing for bonefish, mudding, lobsters and crabs and shrimp, oh my! I definitely wanted to visit. I also wanted to rescue the dozens of skeletal cows who wander the island and block the roads. Poor underfed dears.

RATING: Five buckets of conch shells!


Musings on Niue (Niue)



package from London

edited by Larry Thomas

When this collection arrived in the mail from London, I could hardly contain my excitement. The packaging was magic! Niue (KNEE-way)? My friend from New Zealand says “NEW-eh.” Anyway Niue Island is close to New Zealand, and not much has been written about it.

even more wrappingIn 1998, a man called Larry Thomas hosted a writing workshop on the island. This tiny collection of stories, creative non-fiction, and poetry from islanders is the result. They’re not James Patterson or Anne Lamott, they’re just regular people taking a writing class.

Despite this, their work is very good. Sure, being a crack editor myself, I could edit the volume into an even better place (I was bothered by the redundant phrase “I rushed hastily…”) but I know these are amateurs doing their best. Perfection isn’t the point. Learning about Niue is.

map of niue

Some of the writers are obviously locals:

  • Fanaga Elisoni
  • Fakahula Mitinieli Funaki
  • Hema Ashoka
  • Ligi Siosua Sisikefu

And some are not:

  • Pat Douglas
  • Susan Elliot

One of my superpowers is to be able to tell someone’s ethnicity from their last name. Including names most Americans are not familiar with, like Turkish and Basque. But these defeated me. They seem vaguely Japanese-Polynesian and yet that isn’t quite right.

book coverWiki says that Niuean is a member of the Malayo-Polynesian subgroup of Austronesian languages. It¬†is most closely related to Tongan.¬†¬†It is also related to Hawaiian, Maori, and Samoan. Hmm. I used to know how to count to 5 in Tongan, courtesy of a sweet man I taught English with in Japan. His name was Ralph, he had giant red glasses, and he had lived on Tonga for something like 20 years, where he taught English to the King of Tonga’s children while their father’s pigs rooted around under the house on stilts (Ralph’s, not the King’s.) He had left Tonga to meet English-speaking women, but spoke of it fondly.

What’s Love Got To Do With It?

people swim in a coveNothing, as it turns out. The stories in this collection are people’s memories of their grandparents or themselves (one woman was born in 1946 and grew up on the island. Her grandpa had to ride a horse to school. It was difficult to get an education. Some of the kids had to go away to New Zealand to boarding schools.) There are a couple stories by 7th Day Adventists. There are poems about leaving the island and the sense of loss, and about island life changing. There is a funny story about someone’s dog who is obsessed with chewing up their underwear (pretty much like dogs everywhere) and one about a vegetarian couple trying to get enough to eat at the Friday market.

My favorite story was by J. Vatorata Rex: “The Beehive Kid”.

man holding coconut crab
© R. Ian Lloyd

Man Holding Coconut Crab,
Niue Island, South Pacific

The Beehive Kid

Beehive is a New Zealand brand of matches with a pretty red and black striped cover, and Mr. Rex as a small child was a firebug. He used to get into trouble with his cousin and you can guess what happened next. For years after the two set the garage on fire, thanks to a Yamaha motorcycle leaking fuel, Mr. Rex’s uncle had a special word for them. When they “got too big for their britches”, the uncle would tease them by calling them “the flaming Yamaha kids”.

Another woman’s grandpa would sooth her to sleep when she talked too much by telling her she had “tractors” in her head, making a lot of noise and running around. He would calm the tractors down and she would drift right off as the two sat under the mango tree.

It is clear that whatever else went on in Niue, there was a lot of love and family connection. A lot of time spent together, with not so many worldly possessions. And, as one poem makes clear, it is hard to live your life when everybody is all up in your business, all the time.

OMG, the uga is huge! More like an ugh-a, if you ask me.
OMG, the uga is huge! More like an ugh-a, if you ask me.

Pia Making

One story has to do with the tradition of pia making. Pia seems to be some kind of tapioca, which is made from arrowroot. The by-products are poisonous so you have to be really careful. Traditionally, women and girls who are menstruating are not allowed near the process. (I was offended…First of all, it’s none of your damn business…I remember visiting a mosque in Malaysia and having the guide make this same announcement. Excuse me, and just how are you going to know? Angry face. I always feel like saying “And what about men with erections?”)

small villageAnyway back to the pia making, my only criticism of this book is that there are many terms in Niuean that they just don’t tell you what they mean. I figured out through context that the uga is a coconut crab, but what is luku? What is naane?

man walking



Lavakula the Warrior

The story I thought needed the most help but didn’t get it was the first one in the collection: Lavakula the Warrior. It is a tale of long-ago Niue, which is very interesting. However, the main character, a warrior who goes to another village and is insulted by the people, then gets his people to make war on them, has some plot shifts which don’t make sense. At first, Lavakula’s people support him and can’t wait to kill the others. Once this is done and they return home, the other village resolves to kill Lavakula.

coconut cups
Coconut Cups

Now, the warrior has been described until now as fearless, but suddenly he cowers and cringes and is afraid. His friends and family turn on a dime, from being supportive to ignoring and mocking him. Why? Even his wife suddenly despises him. Maybe this story makes sense to the islanders, but it sure didn’t to me. Also, what’s up with the hand-drawn illustration of “Lavakula Defecating”…???

Altogether though, this was a fascinating peek at an isolated culture.

Rating: Four ugas eating coconuts!




The Caliph’s House (Morocco)

book coverby Tahir Shah

In this memoir, a foreigner moves from London to Morocco to get away from the digitized world. He hates packaged chicken curry sandwiches. He longs to live by the ocean (who doesn’t) in the sunlight and warmth. I have loved the Provence of Peter Mayle…the Tuscany of Frances Mayes…the Corfu of the Durrell family. But this book is different.

Tahir Shah is one-fourth Scottish and two-fourths Afghan; somewhere in his father’s family he is a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. His father used to drive the kids from England all the way to Afghanistan, looking for displays of “fantasia”–men riding horseback, shooting rifles in the air and whooping. Tahir Shah’s wife is from India. So I was intrigued by the family as much as the adventure. And what an adventure it is!

When the Shah family purchases Dar Kahlifa, the Caliph’s¬† House, in the middle of a shantytown in Casablanca, it is at once magnificent and run-down. There are secret rooms that are locked. There is a giant pool (I was ready to move in until the little girl starts throwing snails into it). There are courtyards and bedrooms and kitchens. There is a garden.

There are also Jinns. What?

The Jinns Move In. They Won’t Move Out

Shah hired local craftsmen to restore the house using traditional methods
Shah hired local craftsmen to restore the house using traditional methods

In addition to the house, Shah inherits 3 Moroccan men who live in the shantytown and have been taking care of the Caliph’s House for generations. They obstruct his every desire, saying that the Jinns will be angry. Almost every Moroccan he meets believe in the Jinns. Even some foreigners do. When a house is left empty as Dar Kahlifa has been, Jinns move in. It is their house now, and they don’t like the family to live there. The Shahs are told not to use the toilet in the night, not to build certain things or reconstruct others. They have to prepare gigantic feasts for the Jinns (Shah suspects they disappear into the bellies of the guardians but can’t prove it). The Jinns require presents and for a well to be dug. One of the guardians secretly puts raw meat in it for the Jinns and the whole Shah family ends up violently ill because of it.

interior courtyard with fountainThe remodeling of the house while fighting local superstition is the main theme of the book. Shah says that Casablanca itself seems a first-world, sophisticated city with glitzy restaurants, luxury hotels, and fast cars. But if you scratch the surface, you find the culture of old Morocco with all its superstitions alive and well. He says the whole of North Africa believes in Jinns and curses and witches and sorcery and blood sacrifice. Strangely, devout Muslims tell Shah that Jinns are in the Quran, so they too believe in them.

Shah longed for a library with cedar shelves from floor to ceiling. Unfortunately, cedar is FULL of Jinns…

Disturbingly, the Shahs keep finding dead cats, dead rats, and dead hedgehogs hanging from trees. The guardians say it is because the Jinns are angry. Tahir Shah thinks it is because someone wants to scare them into giving up the house. Possibly the local godfather and his gangster wife who live down the street. The guardians plead with Shah to hire a gang of sorcerers to perform an exorcism, which he finally does. The 25 men he hires under the auspices of the head sorcerer, who looks exactly like a pimp, laze around the Caliph’s House, demanding elaborate meals, smoking hashish, and getting drunk. When they finally perform the exorcism, they slaughter a ram in one of the main rooms and sprinkle the blood around, upsetting Shah’s 5 year old daughter no end.

I have to say, I took the girl’s side. She made friends with the goat immediately. It was the one point in the book when I wanted to punch Shah in the face for not putting his foot down. It was also out of character. Usually, when he saw chameleons for sale by the side of the road, and the boy selling them hanging them by their tails, he bought the entire stock and set them free. He yelled at kids poking donkeys with sticks. So I was very displeased by the goat sacrifice. (Although the sorcerers had originally demanded that he buy them rams to sacrifice in every single room. And he didn’t, thank God.)

That was my main UGH about Morocco–treatment of animals. Look, I understand that when you’re desperately poor, you can’t afford to be sentimental about animals. It still sucks. UGH.

The Afghan Connection

interior of house
I want to live here

What makes this travelogue different from the typical expat tale is that Tahir Shah is deeply connected to his adoptive country, having lived there as a child. He keeps comparing the Atlas Mountains of Morocco to the Hindu Kush of his native Afghanistan.

Shah’s Afghan grandpa was a sophisticated world traveler who became a Freemason in Scotland before WWI. He then lived in Tangier for 10 years. In Casablanca, Shah finds the special coffee shop his grandpa loved (they only serve Brazilian coffee) and asks the owner to bring out his grandfather, who knew Shah’s grandfather. The old man is delighted. Shah also befriends a French Countess who loved his grandpa, plus a fellow Mason¬† in Tangier for whom Shah’s grandpa did a secret good deed decades ago.

the pool

As you would expect, this book is really funny. The house renovation is a battle of wills between the rich foreigner and the wily locals, and you can guess who wins most of the time. There are cultural misunderstandings, but Shah is sincere and good-hearted, if somewhat bumbling. Which just adds to the fun.

I loved hearing about how fruit and veggie vendors in the medina treat the poor. Shah observed an old beggar woman going around the stalls, and how each vendor would carefully select the best peach or the best apple for her. He asked them why, noting that in the West we give only the bruised or day-old to people for free, and they told him that “just because a person is poor, should we give them low quality goods? No. We are not like that in Casablanca.” I love that. It seems a Christ-like or a Mohammed-like action.

the familyMy only criticism of the book is that Shah’s Indian wife Rachana is mostly absent from the narrative. The dialogue is written from an “I” perspective rather than a “we”. Oh, he mentions her a few times, but…I don’t know. she just wasn’t present. This struck me as odd. I wanted to know more about her experiences in Casablanca, and how her perspective as a woman and an Indian person would be different from that of her husband or the locals. I wanted to know about raising two kids in a country where you don’t speak the language (although the older child does pick up French and Arabic more quickly than her father).

Rating: Five bowls of couscous and apricots and lamb! Without the sacrificial lamb. LOL






The 12 Days of Christmas Island (Christmas Island)

book coverreal hawk owlby Teresa Lagrange

The illustrations are super cute. That’s the main thing. Get ready to meet 12 endemic birds of Christmas Island. Get ready to sing “The 12 Days of Christmas” as you’ve never heard it before.

“On the first day of Christmas, the island gave to me: an Owl in a Lilly Pilly Tree.

“1 Hawk-Owl.”

This is probably the only children’s book in the world to have the words “seven Boobies bobbing” in it…LOL. When you have nested and warbled and wobbled your way through the 12 birds the island is giving you, there are a few pages at the back:

Where in the World is Christmas Island?

map of the islandsanta by the island signJust to the north and left of Perth, out in the ocean below Indonesia, apparently. It could just have easily have been named Secretary’s Day Island or Grandparents’ Day Island though, if those holidays had existed in 1643, when the island was sighted by the East India Company’s ship The Royal Mary, with Captain William Mynors in command. (Wiki says the island was first spotted by Europeans in 1615, but not named at that time. Maybe they just sailed on by…)

According to this (I have to say it again) charmingly-illustrated book, almost the entire little island is a National Park (belonging to Australia). Like Sri Lanka, Australia, Madagascar, Brunei, the Galapagos, and other geographically isolated parts of the world, Christmas Island boasts rare bird, plant, and crab species. It also has dense rainforests.

One type of crab, the red crab, performs an annual migration to the sea to spawn, much like the koho (red) salmon of central Idaho, my original home on this planet.

beachI wondered about indigenous people, since the island is a mere 2,594 kilometers from Perth and 2,754 kilometers from Darwin. But the book claims the island was not settled until the late 1800s, and that only a few thousand people live there now. What an interesting life!

flagUnfortunately, the history of Christmas Island is a little more bloody than portrayed in the book. (Understandable, given the intended reader age.) Wikipedia informs me that people from China, Malaysia, Indonesia and elsewhere worked as indentured phosphate miners on the island starting around 1888; the Japanese invaded during WWII; and asylum seekers and political controversy in Australia followed during the early 2000s.

The island is currently a non-self-governing territory of Australia, with its own flag. And of course, its own language. Tseep, tseep!

A Most Glossy Glossary

crab migrationhawk owl as drawnThe last two pages of the book are an index of all the birds you met on the previous pages, plus the Lilly Pilly tree, also know as Syzygium Nervosum or brush cherry. It is one of the tallest trees on Christmas Island, reaching a height of up to forty metres. (That sounded kind of short to me, until I realized she meant 131 feet.) The Ponderosa pines of my  native Idaho grow to 200 feet so I remember how you can get a serious crick in your neck from staring up at their tops.

Along with a list of quick facts about each bird is a thumbnail sketch in color and the onomonopia that they make.

If you’re hearing a tseep with a kerek-kerek, you might have stumbled onto some Christmas Island White-Eyes in the bush along with a Golden Bosunbird. You call tell sailors were naming these things, right?! But my favorite birdcall is the boo-book, boo-book of the Christmas Island Night Owl, yes, number one. Because it sounds like the word book.

You can see some pretty awesome photos at the Christmas Island Tourism website.

RATING: Five Nesting Noddies!


Dark Currents (Aruba)

book coverflag of arubaby Daniel Putkowski

Having just blogged about the joys of owning used books, I was amused to pick this one up and read an inscription from the author:


If I were Elaine, I would still have this book in my library today. This book floated my boat. It sang my song. It had me calling Auntie’s Bookstore the minute I finished it to see if I could get this author’s four other novels to read. Trust me, this one is a keeper.

Glenn Hogan, one of the MCs in the book, is NOT a keeper, despite what the heroine’s friend Margie thinks. Oh, Glenn presents well. He’s tall and handsome, with plenty of money. He treats his girlfriend Kathy Barrow very well. What’s not for a friend to like? Plenty, as it turns out, because Glenn is full of dark currents under a placid surface. He’s a wife-beater. Yeah, enough said. I would be telling Kathy (and Elaine) to dump him, except for just one thing. Kathy knows this, and is dating him anyway, In fact, it is WHY she picked him. What? Yes, dear reader, read on.

Two people go out snorkeling in the beautiful waters of Aruba, an island country off the coasts of Venezuela and Columbia. Only one comes back.

A Dorothy Parker Type Mystery-Thriller

beachI was a little taken aback to read, in the first paragraph, that Kathy Barrow is returning home after killing someone, getting away with it, and collecting $1.5 million in insurance money. To reveal this just as you begin the story seemed strange and anti-climactic, at the very least. But then I remembered a mystery written by Dorothy Parker in 1930s England. (It might be Busman’s Honeymoon.) As Parker’s mystery begins, Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey know who the murderer is. The puzzle they have to solve is HOW.¬† And of course, why. It is an interesting approach and a literary road not often taken, so I resolved to at least give Dark Currents a chapter.

Within about 3 pages I was hooked!

flamingosWhat I loved most about the book were the characters of Kathy, the Aruban kid Romy Tromp who¬†wants to be a famous TV reporter just like his hero Clive Mitchell, (he buys the same kind of shirts on purpose), the paranoid CNN (er…GNN) producer Stan Wofford, and the laid-back island police chief Jules and his girlfriend Agnes the air traffic controller.

The plot just draws you in. It is an easy read.

While there was enough local color to keep me interested, I could have used a few more Aruban fish, birds, plants, and other sights and smells.

Where in the world is Aruba?

I must confess, that even after the island hit the news in 2005 with the¬†disappearance of Natalie Holloway, I didn’t realize how close to South America it really is. That mystery is referenced in the book, as the PM is desperate for his country to not get another black eye for a missing US citizen.

map(Even though authorities are pretty sure Natalie’s killer is Dutch national Joran van der Sloot, a creep serving 28 years in Peru for a different murder, it hasn’t been proven, and her remains have never been found.)

Now, here is the weird thing: People from Holland came here and made this sovereign nation part of their country so far away, rather than the two Spanish-speaking countries so close by. (It is 18 miles off the coast of Venezuela.)

No, Aruba is a “constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands”, in the same situation as American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Marshall Islands–neither fish nor fowl nor good red herring. So it’s part of the Netherlands but not, its own country but also not. If I were Aruban, I would resent this like hell. I get bent enough about how out of touch Washington DC is with my home state of Idaho, and that’s only 3,000 miles away. How can the 16 million people in Holland justify making decisions for the 100,000 Arubans of completely different ethnicity, heritage, geography, language, etc? Talk about injustice. Grrrr

The other strange thing is that the “Kingdom of the Netherlands” itself didn’t exist prior to Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat in 1815. So this new country, this new nation, what is the first thing they do? Take over somebody else’s country. Yeah, I know. America should talk.

Now let’s talk all thing Aruban:

  • Romy’s mother is a taxista
  • the people speak Papiamento, English, Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese
  • the port is called Oranjestad
  • they play beach tennis, which is like badminton (featherball) with a special racket for catching and holding a tennis ball so it stays in the air
  • the interior is dry enough to grow cacti outdoors
  • you can spot wild iguanas sunning themselves on rooftops


Mr. Putkowski, Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Balashi beerOne of the most annoying questions writers get asked by the general public, is “where do you get your ideas.” Ideas are literally everywhere. It is plotting, characterization, and resolution that are hard. Editing. Internal and external conflict.

Ideas are a dime a dozen, people! (Or in Aruba, a florin a dozen!) And this novel was literally (like the Law & Order TV series I love) RIPPED FROM THE HEADLINES.


arubin 5 florin notes

In the preface to this book, the author tells us that he was on Aruba, in a San Nicholaas bar when Robyn Gardner went missing in 2011, and was inspired by events to write this novel about what could have happened.

The moral of the story seems to be, do not go drinking with anyone you do not know, and do not go into the water with anyone you don’t trust with your life. Oh yes, and–NEVER let someone you don’t know take out an insurance policy on you. Never, never, never.

RATING: Five bottles of Balashi beer!





Brunei Rainforest Adventure (Brunei)

Brunei is a tiny country on the island of Borneo.

by Peter Brown

One of the great pleasures of reading previously-owned books is getting to know the random stranger who likes to read the books you like, and who read the book before you. When this hardback arrived in the mail, it was stamped “Merrywood School for Girls, Bristol”.¬† Although no highlighting, dog-earing, or jammy fingers marred the pages, there was an old-fashioned library pocket in front. The last time someone checked out the book was 14 January, 2000. Well, I must say a Rainforest Adventure sounds pretty attractive in January in gloomy old England! This was not the school library, though, the book has had a second incarnation as the property of the Avon County Library, and it had cost six pounds, 99 p. I merely mention it because, as a product of the Royal Geographical Society and the BBC, it has certain affectations uniquely British. But more about them later.

Like Winning the Lottery

book coverI can’t imagine what the 3 chosen 14-year old Britons must have thought when they were selected from hundreds, maybe thousands, of teen applicants. Did they know how lucky they were? Or did they put it down to talent, as a 14-year-old often must. The boys were a musician and an artist, and the girl was a writer. They would interact with the rainforest under the supervision of scientists, and record their impressions. All expenses would be paid, for two weeks. They would trek through the jungle with a toff called Lord Cranbrook (no first name). Later, there would be a film.

HRH His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales (curiously, no name given here either) was the Patron of the Brunei Rainforest Project the year that they set off on their adventure: 1991. The Batu Apoi Rainforest had just been declared a national park by the government of Brunei, whose people had grown wealthy from oil. They had made the forward-thinking decision not to log all their rainforests to sell timber to other countries, thus this one could and would be studied.

With five or six large pictures on each two-page spread and tons of sidebars and text-boxes and carrot points, this book was designed to suck in the 14-year-old adventurer like quicksand, and as a young Indiana Jones trapped in a 40-ish woman’s body, I could not put it down.

areal walkway in forest canopy“My mind is a chaos of delight,” wrote the great Victorian naturalist, Charles Darwin, when he first set foot in a tropical rainforest.

I knew just how he felt, looking at:

  • The red and white polka dotted rafflesia, the world’s largest flower (sometimes three feet across), said to smell like rotting beef
  • Hornbills and gibbons and fruit-eating bats, oh my! (I love bats because they EAT mosquitos)
  • Giant dipterocarp trees, which can reach the height of 15-story buildingsRafflesia flower
  • Weird fungi like glow-in-the-dark mushrooms and one that looks like a Morel perched atop a bride’s veil
  • Pitcher plants that lure insects into their funnels and drown them in an enzyme soup

Brave New Worlds

Scientists are still finding “new” (to us) discoveries in the rainforest. Not to mention new cures for disease. There is no “last frontier”. I find this immensely reassuring.

I enjoyed the paintings and the journal excerpts; it was a little harder to get the experience of the boy who played the saxophone. I’m sure that came across better in the film. He made the point that the jungle is never quiet. And that you could tell the time of day by listening to the particular noises. The book reminded me that “an artist has traditionally been a member of an expedition. Before the days of cameras, artists were there to record discoveries and important moments.” And of course, the art can capture the mood of a place. It was traditionally used sometimes to make the explorer look heroic.

The kids got to work with scientists studying:

  • how water systems work in the rainforest–rivers can rise or fall 6 to 9 feet overnight
  • erosion of topsoil and how, if the first 4 inches is lost, six more feet may go away–can we predict landslides?
  • how the local medicine men, or Bomahs, find curative plants
  • how to access the rainforest canopy–some countries use balloons, tower cranes, or walkways in the sky
  • animal and insect behavior, especially giant ants

I did NOT enjoy the pictures of creepy-crawlies. There was one snake, a reticulated python, that weighed 200 pounds, was 21 feet long, and had a grown-up deer of some kind in its stomach–with antlers. UGH.

Rain in the forestRainforest Action:¬†This is not a book that simply predicts dire consequences for the earth if we lose “the lungs” of our world. I liked the section at the end where they tell you what you can do to save the rainforests. One simple suggestion is to “Become a Brazil Nut.” They say these nuts grow only in tropical rainforests due to a complicated pollination process which involves both insects and bats. They say they are harvested without damaging the forests. By buying Brazil nuts, they say, you are helping local people make a living from the forest.

Some Kinda Funny Old British Foibles

  • A mosque in Bandar Sari Begawan (BSB), the capital of Brunei. It is a Moslem majority country.

    They forgot to mention rainforests of other types: I live in Washington State and we have a rainforest right here, near the coast. It is called the Hoh. Believe me, Washington State is not tropical.

  • They tell you the closest place to see rainforest plants if you can’t go to Brunei is Kew Gardens, in London. (My British friends live in Cornwall, quite near a little biological reserve called Eden…)
  • They call flashlights “torches”.

And so on. Giggle. To sum up, the book gave me that same thrill of excitement and discovery I felt the first time I got a letter from my new German pen-pal back in the 1980s. Hmmm, I believe I was 14 years old then. I think anyone with an ounce of curiosity would love to get their hands on this book, and have an armchair Rainforest Adventure in Brunei, with no insects to bother them; no heat or humidity to keep their socks wet for days on end.

The rainforest in Brunei

RATING: Five curled millipedes (more attractive than they sound). In fact, I thought they were flower blossoms until later in the book.

The Hoh Rainforest in Washington State's Olympic National Park
The Hoh Rainforest in Washington State’s Olympic National Park