The Royal House of Monaco (Monaco)

Monaco portby John Glatt

One summer when I was 12 years old, my mother, her mother, and I grabbed big glasses of iced Coke with lemon wedges and headed on into the living room to watch what was being billed as the Wedding of the Century–Princess Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles. Little did I know that decades earlier, my mom and grandma had watched another Wedding of the Century together, when my mother was 12. The wedding of American film star Grace Kelly to Monaco’s Prince Rainier. (Ironically, Princess Grace once considered Prince Charles as a top candidate to marry her eldest daughter. Caroline dodged a bullet there.)

Monaco is one of those strange little countries:

  • It is an enclave. Totally surrounded by France on three sides and the sea on the other.
  • It lost over 90 percent of its land a few centuries ago.
  • The indigenous people who live there are called Monagasques.
    • There are about 5,000 of them and the rest of the citizens are French, Italian, Belgian, British and Americans, who can’t vote.
  • The ruling royal family, the Grimaldis, have been in power for 700 years.
  • It is a police state–don’t criticize the ruling family because you never know who is listening.
  • Thanks to a friend of Princess Grace, one of the hottest restaurant/bars is a Tex-Mex place called Le Texan.

Some of the medals on Rainier’s uniform were earned by him during his time with the Free French in WWII. Something else I liked about him.

Although this easy-to-read non-fiction book is the story of the current Grimaldi family, you do get interesting glimpses of Monaco and its history along the way. How the family got its hands on power originally? The book and Wiki differ substantially. According to the book, during a border war, Grimaldi ancestor Francis”the Spiteful” of Genoa disguised himself as a monk and begged admittance to Monaco Castle. When the guards let him in, his army slaughtered everyone. That was in 1297, and the Grimaldis have been absolute rulers in Monaco ever since. Should they die without issue, or without adopting an heir, the principality will revert to France.

The Wonderful World of the Grimaldis

Curiously, my DK World Atlas says that Rainier surrendered absolute power in 1962 and they got a democratic constitution, but that isn’t mentioned in the book. Only that Rainier behaves like a dictator and believes in the Divine Right of Kings. It is true that members of the royal family still have to get his permission, in writing, to marry, which has led to some sticky moments over the years as both of the wild daughters have taken up with extremely unsuitable and embarrassing boyfriends. Many of the family friends quoted in the book say that if Princess Grace had lived, Caroline and Stephanie would have behaved better. But I doubt it. They were brought up spoiled and entitled, and they behaved just as badly when she was alive.  (Unfortunately the book ends in 1998 when it was published, so we don’t know if “Dirty Bertie”–Prince Albert–ever marries or if Stephanie has any more kids out of wedlock or if Caroline marries for the third time or if Rainier is still alive.) Hello, Google.

map of MonacoOne way in which you can tell Rainier is a royal is that he loves things most people don’t…not the opera in his case but…clowns. According to the book, Rainier has always loved the circus. It was a dream of his for awhile to retire and then get into a decorated VW bus and follow a circus around Europe. I found this rather endearing. Apparently there was a famous Italian clown called Grimaldi and Rainier was in the habit of signing his correspondence with a clown face. (You have to wonder if this influenced Stephanie’s year-long marriage to a trapeze artist.) Bertie loves sports, especially bobsled racing, and Caroline is a big patron of the arts, especially ballet. Stephanie was once paid $1,200 per hour to model, but was made to give that up by her father.

It is fun to fantasize about what I would do if I had the Grimaldi money and were a royal, and I would like to think that I would not be such a boob. But I probably would. I don’t think they can help it, growing up with everyone treating you with such servility. The girls have had all sorts of public temper tantrums, flipping off reporters. Their father gets upset and punches paparazzi and slaps comedians who make fun of his son’s hair loss. But Bertie, it was mentioned, enjoyed going to college in America where his dorm mates referred to him as “Big Al” and didn’t show him the deference he was used to in Europe, especially Monaco. (Rainier on the other hand was bullied at his English boarding school and called “Fat Little Monaco.”) It was also mentioned several times that the British Royal Family declined to attend either Princess Grace’s wedding or her funeral, as it doesn’t consider the Grimaldis as social equals. Only Diana came to the funeral, because Grace was kind to her at her first public appearance with Charles. You have to wonder if she felt any foreboding. (Stephanie also once had a fling with Dodi al-Fayad…small exclusive circles.)

I liked Prince Rainier at times–he  enjoyed watching cowboy movies and “football”; he once fell asleep during a poetry reading; he became very upset after his wife’s death at how much he had taken her for granted, he got furious with his children but never cut them off completely, and he once dreamed of inviting the American hotel chain of Holiday Inns to come to Monaco and enable people to stay there for $15 a night. I didn’t like him so much when he was punching and slapping the little people, having a hair-trigger temper with Grace (he yelled at her for putting the wrong flowers in a guests room, screaming that white carnations were the flowers of the dead) or referring to Stephanie’s policeman lover as “that servant”.

“Monaco is Part Police State, Part Disneyland”

The Grimaldis go to great lengths to be sure the super-rich feel comfortable in their country.

“Each morning a team of gardeners gather in the garden in the casino square to pluck out any wilting petals that might spoil the immaculate flowerbeds; at night a tape-recording of a bird of prey plays through discreetly-hidden speakers to stop sparrows from landing and soiling the park with bird droppings.

“Locals claim that unofficially some police discreetly drop any unexplained bodies over the border in France and leave their police to deal with the problem.

“Many a weary, bedraggled backpacker has been stopped at the station and put on the next train out, deemed an unwanted eyesore.

“Using the latest fiber-optic technology, the state observers can instantly rotate any of the cameras placed over all banks, chemists’ shops and jewelers through nearly 360 degrees. Back at HQ the watchers can even zoom in to see what newspapers are being read.”


A Word About Words and Parts of Speech

casinoI kept wondering why people who are indigenous to Monaco weren’t called Monicans, but Monegasques. Wiki tells me it is the name of a language. Since Monaco used to be the very Western part of Genoa in Italy, it is no surprise that Monegasque shares many features with the Genoese dialect of Ligurian. The Nicard dialect of Occitan is also spoken in Monaco. Charmingly, the Monegasque language is being taught in schools and in the old part of Monaco, the street signs are in Monegasque and in French.

Rating: Five stars to this gossip-filled yet balanced look at one of Europe’s most scandalous royal families and its interesting tiny country.

PS–Second Verse, Same as the First

Since the ending of the book, Prince Rainier has passed away (in 2005, just one month before news broke of Bertie’s son by a black flight attendant from Togo–the second of his children born on the wrong side of the blanket.) Bertie did marry, a South African woman with whom he has now had twins. Stephanie had another kid with another bodyguard. (She coyly refused to name the father, but the kid has his last name.) Caroline married the guy she was having an affair with (while he was still married)–that’s Prince Ernest of Hanover, who would have been a King of England if Victoria hadn’t come to the throne instead. This charmer once assaulted a disco owner in Kenya and has also broken a cameraman’s nose with his umbrella. Look, I get that having paparazzi in your face all the time can’t be pleasant–give up your money and your perks and your fame and your royal title if you don’t want all that then. No? Then deal with it.

Ironically, Princess Grace had tried to set up Caroline and Ernst back when she was alive–he was her number 2 choice to marry her daughter. At that time, Caroline found him stuffy and boring. Looks like Mother Knows Best after all.

Dreams of Bread and Fire (Armenia)

book clubFiction

by Nancy Kricorian

for my friend Zan Agzigian

While kayaking Toda Lake in Tokyo, I used to tell my friend Julia stories about my ex-boyfriend. The one I’d come to Japan from Hungary to forget. And she used to tell me that every time I spoke about him, she “just wanted to punch him in the nose.” (It did help me get over him.) I felt exactly the same about Ani’s ex in this novel. Within two sentences, you can tell he is a big fat jerk.

Ani is half-Jewish, and half-Amenian. I did a lot of Googling of the Armenian genocides. I last read about Armenia while reading the history of the Papacy, and in that book the country was doing well. A Christian nation in the Middle East with deep roots and a long tradition of church prominence in the region.

But then the Ottomans came along. That wasn’t particularly good for anyone except for selected Ottomans. Now, I’ve always read about how tolerant the Ottoman Empire was toward citizens who were different. This novel made clear to me just how much discrimination Christians and Jews did suffer under the Ottomans, how much contempt, how much disgust. All of that hurts, whether or not you are “allowed” to practice your minority religion, and whether or not your church-building is “tolerated.” Christian churches in Armenia under the Ottomans could not be taller than mosques…

ancient map of ArmeniaBut all of this takes place in the background of the novel, which is mainly a love story. A story of Ani healing from a relationship that, whether she realizes it or not, was abusive. A story of Ani performing that most important work of a young adult–answering the question of Who Am I?

The Most Important Work…in Paris

Ani goes to Paris. Ani is an au pair. Ani goes to a university on scholarship. Ani is poor. Ani makes judgments about the unhappy marriage of the people she works for and the snottiness (but also loveliness and sadness) of their daughter Sydney. Ani gets phone calls from her ex. He wants her badly–but only when he can’t have her. (I actually cheered one time when she Hung Up On Him.) Since I once had an ex that I broke up with and got back together with approximately 18 times, I know it isn’t easy.

modern mapWho Ani Is is part societal construct (she grew up in America), part family history–is she Jewish? Is she Armenian? If so, how much? What must she carry forward? What must she leave behind, to be healthy? And part, of course, is all her.

And then into her life comes Van, a person she knew when they were kids, a person who rescued her from bullies, a person who is now a good-looking man. Van happens to be stationed in Paris, working for an NGO which assist Armenians who are victims of the diaspora. It is in this moment, when we meet and recognize him and are glad, and he explains to the politically-oblivious Ani what he is doing and why, that I felt the first stirring of impatience with the book.

I am tired, you see, of books in which a Female is Led to a Greater Truth by a Boy or Man Who Has a Mission. It just feels so man-splainy.

To be fair, however, it’s a thing. It happened to me as a young woman. I was a chameleon, so desperate to be loved that I was willing to take on the interests and mission of whatever man found me worthy. I lost myself in him and thought that was lucky. The benefit of middle age is that now, I think for myself, I know what I’m passionate about and what I’m not, and I’ve stopped seeking approval–quite so much. So it does ring true for Ani’s age and background. As does her free and easy sexual seeking.

Of Hedgehogs and Crosses

churchIn some ways, this delectable novel reminded me of my blog book on France, The Elegance of the Hedgehog. They’re both set in Paris, they both have characters you root for, and they both teach you a lot about the subcultures that thrive there. There are scenes that will delight your five senses…the sights, smells, sounds, textures, and feelings of the Eternal City of Light. The novel, though easy reading, doesn’t shy away from addressing issues of wealth and class. Her erstwhile ex, named Asa Willard, has some pretty awful parents. They’re rich. Here is a scene from them meeting her for the first time. The dad has been drinking.

“Asa tells me you’re from Watertown [Massachusetts], Ani,” Peggy Willard said. “You’re Armenian?”

“My mother’s Armenian.”

Ben returned to the dining room. “You know what George Orwell says about Armenians, son?” he asked, winking at Asa.

Armenian cognac with Greek letteringAni’s breath halted in her throat for a few seconds, while she waited for Ben to drop the blade.

“Don’t trust them. They’re worse than Jews or Greeks,” Ben said.

Asa colored deeply. [Not a total asshole.] “Dad, what kind of thing is that to say?”

“Ben, that’s not very  nice.” Peggy’s voice was edged with false cheer.

“Can’t anyone around here take a joke?” Ben asked darkly.

In the library’s stacks, Ani had scoured Orwell for the line and found it: Trust a snake before a Jew, and a Jew before a Greek, but don’t trust an Armenian.

You Never Forget Your First Armenian

church by waterThe first time I even heard of Armenia was when I read the book Ali and Nino, by Kurban Said. It is a love story between a Muslim boy and a Christian girl in Azerbaijan, and the bad guy  is Armenian. The second time I heard of Armenia is when I was discussing World War II with my husband, and he quoted Hitler’s speech in which The Most Evil had said he could get away with exterminating the Jews, because look, ‘Nobody remembers the Armenians,” referring to the Turkish genocide, which the Turkish government (not The Turks) denies to this day. Much as the Japanese government denied for decades their shameful atrocities against the Korean “Comfort Women”, also in WWII. The third time I heard of Armenia was when my poet friend Zan Agzigian told me the ethnicity of her name. Once you hear an Armenian name, you never forget it. It is very easy to identify an Armenian name. Van’s family name, for example, is Ardivanian. Ani’s mother’s name is Kersamian, although her late father’s was Silver (likely short for Silberschmidt or something Eastern European that got chopped off at Ellis Island, in the way that Americans and Australians are wont to do.) The man in Ani’s English-Armenian exercise book is called Mattheos Garagosian.

Armenian traditional costume“Miriam was Ani’s grandmother’s name. And Baba was called Mattheos.

Ani saw them suddenly, a young man in a black cloth coat standing beside his diminutive dark-haired wife. They were at Ellis Island being questioned by an immigration official. The man tapped his pencil impatiently on the desk. Mattheos repeated his last name slowly and the man wrote the letters down. He showed it to Mattheos.

Is that it? The man asked.

Yes, that’s it, Mattheos said.

Mariam, following the proceedings skittishly, didn’t understand English, so Mattheos translated for her. She gave the name of her town and the approximate year of her birth.

The vision faded.

Mountains of ArmeniaHad Baba known English when he arrived? How had he learned it? Why had he come to America? When they emigrated, whom had they left behind? Her grandparents drew a curtain of silence over their early lives. And Ani, growing up amid Old World shadows, had never thought to ask.

Rating: Brilliant. Five helpings of manti, and also fresh madzoon!

PS 1–My beloved DK Atlas of the World, circa 1990, says that Azer-Baijan and Armenia are at war. (Just like the protagonist in Ali and Nino and his Armenian friend.) There is a disputed enclave called Nagorno-Karabakh that was Azeri and the Armenians wanted it or wanted it back. You will want to know what an enclave is because the upcoming blog on San Marino features one.

PS2-Armenia is famous for its cognac-producing regions. Anybody know if cognac is gluten free?

Valmiki’s Daughter (Trinidad)

book coverby Shani Mootoo

Courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore


The first pages of this book are swamped by gorgeous yet endless description along the lines of Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides. I mean like 9 pages straight. Or maybe 114. I became impatient when I couldn’t see where the author was going with this. I wanted to read a novel, after all, not a guidebook. (I often skip descriptions in books in order to get to the dialogue. This is my bad.) But I know some people enjoy this sort of writing, and it does give a tremendous sense of place. Here, the author devotes three or four pages to imagining you are standing on a traffic island, blindfolded. What do you smell?

“…The aroma of roasting peanuts, of corn boiling in garlic-infused water, of over-used vegetable oils in which split-pea fritters with cumin seeds have been fried, of the cheery, spicy foreignness of the apples and grapes being sold in the open-air counter on the corner, would activate your taste buds, and in spite of the surrounding unpleasantness, even if you had eaten not long ago, your stomach would argue that it was ready and able again.

“A person might pass near enough for you to be assailed by his or her too-long unwashed body. And you might well be assaulted by the equally offensive fragrance of another passerby’s underarm deodorant, which, having been called upon to do its duty, swelled uncontrollably in the heat.

“The stink of urine would of course be there, and surprisingly, that of human excrement, rising high on crests of wind and then thankfully subsiding. And sailing in, all the way up to this high point, on a breeze from the Gulf not too far away, would be the odors of oil-coated seaweed, dried-out barnacles that cover fishing vessels beached at the wharf below, and scents from foreign ports. If this olfactory mélange were audible, it would indeed be cacophonous, made more so by the terrible nostril-piercing stench of incinerated medical wastes and bed linens, intermittent effluxes from two tall chimney stacks set at the rear of the hospital. Your stomach, opened up moments before in greedy receptivity, might feel as if it had been tricked and dealt a dirty blow.

Samaan tree

Samaan tree at Fort King George on Tobago

“Then again, it might be the season when the long, dangling pods of the samaan tree (the unofficial tree of the city, planted and self-sprouted everywhere) which resemble a caricature-witch’s misshapen fingers split–and the entire town is drenched in an odor akin to that of a thousand pairs of off-shore oil workers’ unwashed socks, an odor as bad as, but more widely distributed than, the effluvia from the medical waste incinerator.

“The air temperature would be high, as benefits an equatorial midday. If you remained standing on that exposed traffic island too long, your skin would redden and become prickly in no time, as if it had been rubbed in bird-pepper paste.”

The place is the island of Trinidad, just off the coast of Venezuela. The city of San Fernando. The city’s general hospital.

housesSan Fernando is the place where Valmiki lives and works. He is a doctor. He is also a serial philanderer, and a closeted gay man. And possibly the most selfish protagonist I’ve ever met. Well no, not really. But he is selfish. This made it hard for me to like him. Look, I get it. It isn’t easy to be gay in the Caribbean. But this character is so desperate to get his needs met that he tramples all over the feelings and needs of others without so much as a fare-thee-well. We are told, for example, that the one true love of his life, a man named Tony with whom he had an affair in medical school, tried to kill himself when Valmiki left him to return to Trinidad and marry a woman. But Valmiki didn’t contact him after his suicide attempt. Now, however, he calls Tony in Goa and is hurt when Tony is distant.

San Fernando hospital

The hospital in San Fernando (where Valmiki works). A leftover from Colonial times.

When Valmiki feels the worst about himself, he goes out into the forest to shoot animals. He almost kills a mother dog, just because he thinks nobody is around to protect her. Then he sees the glow of a cigarette and realizes a man is with her. He lowers his rifle and creeps away in shame, horrified at himself. Surely, you and I wouldn’t react in the same way…would we?

Like Father, Like Daughter?

Valmiki’s daughter Viveka can’t understand why her mother puts up with her father’s numerous and semi-public affairs. (The reader can. It proves his manhood.) I felt for the mother. I remember all too well the pain of dating a closeted gay man. When you are used as a beard without your knowledge or consent. The baffled feeling of rejection, of not being desired. You feel like there’s something wrong with you. That you’re not attractive. When in reality, you’re just not attractive to him. It is nobody’s fault, but the lying causes suffering for all.

map of TrinidadI get that when you can’t be who you are, it makes you lash out in all directions. When you’re always afraid. Valmiki seems to be suffering from a kind of lateral oppression. He loves to go hunting with his buddies, including a day laborer named Saul. Saul’s wife knows about their affair. She cooks fried plantain for Valmiki. I enjoyed the hunting camp scenes, with the descriptions of lush jungle and delicious pineapple alcohol. (Pineapple wine mixed with molasses and sugarcane = babash. Yum.) The simple, easy friendship between the men, and the love and respect they have for “Doc”. One above their class, who loves to hang out with them.

Class Conscious, Much?

beachAnyway, back to the daughter. Unlike her sister Vashti, poor Viveka gets scolded all the time for her “mannishness”. She can’t help how she looks–square, boxy, solid. She cuts her hair short and refuses to grow it long. She wants to join a volleyball club with her friend Helen, but her mother has 10,000 fits about that. Devika is afraid that her daughter will become a full-on lesbian if she gets into volleyball, though she doesn’t come right out and say so. She also doesn’t like partially-white Indians like Helen’s family. She thinks they are beneath her, but that they are pretentious at the same time, “exclaiming over curry like they’ve never seen it before” and giving their children names like Helen. And of course Trinidadans of African descent are beyond the pale. They’re the men who hang out around the park. Heaven forfend that Viveka should date one of them!

Maracus beachViveka’s confused. She doesn’t want to end up like either of her parents, but she doesn’t know how to defy custom and society. She has a sobering example before her–her friend Merle Bedi came out and was kicked out by her family. Now she’s homeless, dirty, drugged and begs on the street.

Of all the characters, I sympathized with Viveka and Vashti the most. As the younger generation, they seemed to have fewer class hang-ups than their parents. It was interesting to me that a gay man would produce a gay daughter.

flagAfter reading this novel, I would love to visit Trinidad. (and Tobago.) I love Indian people, and people of Indian descent, and I think I would enjoy meeting African people and people of African descent. In many ways, the people of Trinidad seem easy-going and likable, even as they struggle to become one people and overcome the Colonial legacy of inequality, racism and death.

WARNING: This novel was shortlisted for a literary prize.

Rating: Three bowls of pineapple babash!

PS–The author is Irish-Trinidadan. Such an interesting heritage.

Waiting for the Mango Rains (Central African Republic) (CAR)

book coverby Jon White

It’s 1974. Nixon has just resigned. Before the American in this book has even left the plane to embark in the Central African Republic, he falls victim to a scam. Having traveled extensively throughout Europe and Asia, *I* saw it coming a kilometer away. It’s the old “oh dear, I’ve left my purse on the plane, if only some nice, naïve American would carry it through customs for me” ploy. Never, never, never, pick up someone’s frog bag. Remember Bridget Jones in Thailand!

When our hero is promptly detained for diamond smuggling, I was not surprised.

Blood Diamonds

I must rant for a moment, my apologizes. Diamonds are bad. Diamonds are shamefully bad. I highly recommend that you, dear reader, watch the documentary Blood Diamonds. You will learn how diamonds, one of the most common minerals ever, had their value artificially inflated by the de Beers company in South Africa. How diamond mines have a history of Colonialism and abuse. But most of all, how diamonds are used as currency in human trafficking and drugs and arms deals. They enable warlords to do terrible things. Every bad guy ever loves to deal in uncut diamonds because they’re virtually untraceable, unlike money. I got so upset after watching this that I had my engagement ring created from purple Montana sapphires. No diamonds, no, no, no! Not ever. Read more about conflict diamonds here.

But, Back to the Book

map of the CARFinally realizing that he is in real trouble in a central African republic, facing grumpy immigration officials with assault rifles, our hero asks for the American Embassy. The army officer who has been interrogating him tells him, “It’s closed. Why don’t you know that? You must be lying to us about who you are.”

Our hero, who has just graduated from college and landed a job as a fisheries biologist with USAID, an arm of the U.S. State Department, is floored. Why didn’t anyone tell him? He’s been on a plane for two days.

Horrified and scared, he asks for the French Embassy. (A good bet that it is open, since the French colonized the CAR and support Bokassa, the President for Life.) OK, our American is told, but the Embassy is closed now. So we’re going to have to hold you overnight. In jail.

ancient CAR villageIn a squalid cell, with no mosquito net, he huddles under a stifling hot Army blanket all night. In the morning, he is horrified to see that one of his arms has flopped outside the makeshift barrier and his hand and wrist are covered in hundreds of tiny bites. Hello, malaria.

With a surprising amount of moxie, at dawn he breaks out of his cell and hikes five miles through the jungle back to the city he arrived in. There, in a cafe, he finds a friendly Belgian expat who treats him to breakfast. He waits for the embassy to open. The expat tells him that he’s been scammed AGAIN. That the men who held him were not the legitimate officials, but a gang that operates out of the city. They got his suitcases, his wallet, and his Breitling watch which was a graduation gift from his parents.

Ubangi River

the Ubangi River

Our hero gets terribly upset, and the Belgian laughs at him, explaining that most Africans are lucky to make $200 a year and that the privileged American has no idea what it is like to go hungry or see his children go hungry. That there are no jobs. That the President takes all the wealth for  himself. The Belgian makes our hero feel ashamed. The only thing that is really irreplaceable is his watch, and it is for sentimental reasons. (In addition to his $4,000 per month living allowance, Nick is making $45,000 per year in 1974.)

It’s a Novel

Fula women

Women of the Fula tribe

It was at this point, when he introduces himself as Nick D’Amato, that I finally realized I was reading a work of fiction! Yes, up until now, I was thoroughly engrossed in the tale as I would be in a memoir. I bought this book used, you see, and there was an inscription in it: “To Ron and Margot, Tales from my misspent youth. Enjoy! Love, the author.” And so I thought…especially as our hero is not named for chapters and chapters except one time in which he is called Nick and I thought it was strange but possibly a nickname…Well, I guess it just shows how engagingly well-written this book is.

Don’t be put off by its self-published appearance–it’s a page turner.

Africans dancingNick is a great hero–the opposite of the ugly American abroad. He wants to help people. He falls in love with Africa, and the gentle, generous Africans, and ends up “going native”–moving in with his girlfriend Veronique, adopting her two little sisters, eating African food and drinking the local Mocaf beer that the other expats scorn as “panther piss”. The others huddle together in white residences, drinking imported Bud Light, refusing to learn the local languages, and playing tennis and swimming all day. Nick becomes more and more estranged from them. Five years go by.

People have been living in Central Africa for thousands of years before Christ

People have been living in Central Africa for thousands of years before Christ

Nick occasionally runs afoul of the local juju men–sorcerers who increasingly enforce the President’s will. President for Life Bokassa is utterly corrupt, and a member of a minority tribe called the M’Baka.(Most of them are just as much his victims as the rest of the tribes.) This is the same tribe that Nick’s girlfriend Veronique belongs to. In the village where they live, people are afraid that if the President falls, they will be attacked by other tribes. Nick, who has eaten around the cooking fires of many area tribes, and has learned the Songa and M’Baka languages, just can’t believe his gentle and courteous friends would turn on each other.

Tribes of the CAR:

There are more than 80 ethnic groups in the CAR, each with its own language. According to Wiki, about 50% are Baya-Mandija, 40% are Banda, and only  7% are M’Baka. In the book we also run into one “Arab, who works at the slaughterhouse”, and two Portuguese trader families who have been in Africa for 3 generations.

Genocide Countdown

Of course, as modern-day readers, we are screaming in our heads, “You’re an idiot. Get out! Get out while you can!” Everybody is warning Nick, from the CIA agent in the Embassy to the Belgian in the café to the French priest who has fathered a half-African son. With my own knowledge of the genocides in Rwanda and Burundi, happening in my own lifetime, I was just waiting for something terrible to happen and stewing over Nick’s willful ignorance. (Something else he is willfully ignorant of is his chances of getting an STD or worse from his girlfriend. One night she tells him her husband gave her “a disease” that he picked up from a prostitute, and it caused her to become sterile, and then he left her because she couldn’t have children. Nick then starts having sex with her and never uses a condom! Is it too early for AIDS?)

Ancient stone monoliths

Ancient stone monoliths

Eventually the State Department decides the political situation is too dangerous–Bokassa is accused of locking up school children from a rival tribe for refusing to wear uniforms with his picture on them–and then clubbing them to death. At the same time, he’s preparing to crown himself Emperor.

To avoid a forcible evacuation, Nick ends up quitting USAID. He’s now a private citizen running amuck in Africa, with civil war likely to break out at any minute.

The question becomes: Will the U.S. Embassy still send the Marines to extract Nick when the worst happens? Or is he on his own? What about his family? What about their extended family? And will the juju men take this opportunity to pounce?

I couldn’t put this book down. Through Nick’s eyes I fell in love with Central Africa too. The way the people love children. Really, really love them. The way that everyone has brothers and mothers everywhere. The delicious indigenous food. (Peanuts and bananas feature heavily.) The palm wine enjoyed by all. The way that old women run things, but let the old men think that they do. Ha ha! The animism that is practiced along with Christianity–the M’Baka in the village go out one night to pray to a tree spirit around a bonfire. The complete lack of materialism.

Oh, there are bad things too. It’s true of every culture. Nick hires a lame man to help him in the fish ponds, and is saddened to find that most of the rest of the people shun him. Many people see having a physical or mental disability as a punishment for something your ancestors did. (It is the same in some Chinese areas, only there lots of folks fear that your bad luck might be catching.)

Another bad thing is that when men go to jail for stealing, the prison does not feed them. Their families have to, and if the prisoner has no family, he depends on the other prisoners to share their meager food. Or he will starve. Most of the men are there for stealing food in the first place.

Nick is horrified by this (just one of the reasons we like him) and begins hiring a dozen prisoners to help him in the fish ponds and giving them meals twice daily. This was very satisfying.

I could go on and on, but I will stop now. Suffice it to say that the CAR has undergone even more trauma and turmoil since this book was written in 2009. It will make your heart ache for the people.

Rating: Five shy green mambas, in a tree far, far away.


PS–The juju men who have cursed the fish station claim to be able to sicken people they don’t like. They attack Nick’s houseboy Armande. Nick thinks the man has gotten hepatitis from parasites in the river. Armande’s wife washes Nicks clothes in that water, and then Armande has to use a hot iron on them to kill the parasite larvae. UGH, UGH, UGH. You see a pretty river and think oh boy, I’d like to go for a swim. Only, don’t.

A Beginner’s Guide to Paradise (FSM) (Yap) (Pig) (Palau) (Anguar)

book coverby Alex Sheshunoff (a.k.a. Eric)
courtesy of a special order from ABE

This book is a memoir about the author’s time on various islands in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM); with particular attention to the islands of Yap, Pig, and Palau. Also Anguar. (Alex also visits Guam but since I’ve already done Guam on this blog I left it out. As the author didn’t go to Star Sand Beach or encounter any sea snakes but did patronize the McDonald’s, you really haven’t missed much.)

Almost Paradise

Do you have a screen saver of a beach with palm trees on your work computer? I did. Alex did too. He started an Internet start-up in New York and ran it for five years. He wasn’t happy. He quit, broke up with his girlfriend, stopped seeing his pretentious college roommate and moved to a very sparsely populated island in search of Paradise. But, as Jon Kabat-Zinn is fond of saying, wherever you go, there you are. Alex still wasn’t happy.

Federated States of Micronesia mapThe people he meets have few possessions. But they seem content, or at least more content than Alex. When a Palauan named Gibson takes Alex fishing, Alex asks if Gibson ever wants a bigger boat or a newer motor, and the man looks at him as if he’s sprouted two heads. No, he says. Duh.

One of the reasons I wanted to read this particular ex-pat story is that Alex has taken 100 books with him to read in the islands–100 of the books he feels the most guilty about never having read, such as Moby Dick–and he next reads a tract by a professor who believes that happiness can be calculated by the following equation:

material possessions (divided by)
desire for material possessions

FSM mapSo you can either increase your material possessions or decrease your desire for them or both, and voila! You’re happy. And of course, if you have more material possessions than the people around you, then you are happier. And I thought to myself as I read, um yes, bullshit. This is the problem with Capitalism.

Compared to the Palauans, Alex is very wealthy–able to travel halfway around the world to live on a whim–and yet…he isn’t happy. He knows almost nobody in the islands and has few social interactions. He is so lonely that he schedules himself to speak to strangers at least once per day, including topless middle-aged women at the laundromat. Even when all his clothes are clean. When Alex finally begins forming friendships, life gets better for him. HMMMM

island seen from the waterThe people in the islands seem to love Americans. One man tells him that during WWII, the Japanese had put his grandfather and many of his relatives to work building a huge tunnel. Right before it was completed, the Americans liberated the islands, and it was only then that they discovered that the Japanese had planned to herd all 3,000+ Palauans into the tunnel and blow it up with dynamite.


About 60 people seem to live on Yap, but there are no beaches. The liquor store sells two things–beer, and vodka. Alex applies to the Council of Chiefs, who think his name is Eric, for permission to visit the even less populated island of Pig. It is touch and go for awhile, until he jokingly asks if the chiefs of the other islands would like him to bring gifts of women or cigarettes. This cracks them up, and they encourage him to take smokes as gifts.


Stone money

Ancient stone money used in the islands, quarried from Palau and brought to other islands by canoe

Alex arrives with 50 packs of Lucky Strikes and 50 packages of strawberry pop tarts. He is very popular. He retires to the Men’s Hut with Chief Paul and about 40 others, and they relax, smoke, and talk. Chief Paul tells him that they have run out of cigarettes six months previously. Alex is introduced to the one Republican on the island, who listens to Rush Limbaugh on his radio. All the others are Democrats. They ask him to explain how the Americans ended Communism. They watch the one video they possess–a US Army training exercise on how to put on a gas mask.


beach in FSMAlex gets his scuba diving certification from a very dodgy company and will probably die underwater. There is a famously strong ocean current on his first dive, and you have to jam a rod into a rock and hold on, or you’ll be swept off the other side and your dive is over. Alex makes it but two other people on his dive miss the rock and flash by him up, up, and away.

Coming back, he sees a group of people about to go for a midnight kayak paddle and is invited to join. That’s how he meets…Sarah. Quickly realizing that they share the same sardonic sense of humor, they decide to paddle away from the others, slip into the water, swim up to one of the other kayaks, and tip it over. They do this in the dark. Sarah is not wearing her glasses. From under the water, the other kayak is surprisingly stable. They push with all their might, but nothing happens. They burst out of the water shouting ARRRRRRGH and discover they have been trying to tip over…a rock.

Gomez, the adorable baby monkey

Gomez, the adorable baby monkey

The real formula for happiness becomes apparent, and Alex now has a friend. An upgrade to girlfriend would surely upgrade his happiness, I think, and sure enough, the two begin dating. What will happen on the island of Angaur?

  • Will the two try to build a house together?
  • How will they take care of the baby monkey they are gifted? Will they be able to return him to his family in the jungle, or is it already too late?
  • Since lawyer Sarah’s contract with the Palauan Supreme Court is up, and she is returning to California, can she and Alex possibly have a future together?
  • What does Alex want to do with the rest of his life? Will he figure it out in time?
Yap island

Yap island

I enjoyed the author’s self-deprecating humor, learning facts about the islands such as, due to everyone’s chewing betel nut and spitting on the floor, the walls and floor of the courthouse are painted red. I particularly enjoyed the way each chapter starts, like a school textbook, with the words: What You Can Expect to Learn in This Chapter: followed by two questions like:

  1. While jogging with the president of Palau, is it appreciated to bring up a movie about a fictional small country that invades the United States only to find its invasion ignored?
  2. What might the president have hidden in his exercise towel?

(The answer to the second question is a tape recorder.) The President is a savvy man who, while trusting, also protects his own interests. And the answer to the first question is: laughter from the Pres.

Every Town Has Its Ups And Downs

Endangered leatherback turtle

Endangered leatherback turtle

While I read the book wanting a vicarious Paradise experience of warmth, swimming in clear water with tropical fish, beauty, and feasts of lobster and mangos and pina coladas at the bar, etc., and I got some of that, it was great to be reminded that even Paradise has the good AND the bad. Alex is constantly plagued by sand flies, flies, mosquitos, and other horrid insects. He gets bored a lot. On Pig, the inhabitants cruelly butcher an endangered leatherback turtle and when Alex eats the grilled meat, he gets firehose diarrhea. The monkey that he and his girlfriend adopt comes to them because a Philippine hunter has shot its mother for a $10 bounty–the macaques eat betel nuts, apparently. One day while hiking, Alex grabs the trunk of a tree for support and gets a welt on his hand that lasts for a week. And of course, there are the ugly Americans who think Palauans are lazy and stupid. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again–if you don’t like foreign countries, why  not stay  home?!

JellyfishOne of the most beautiful parts of the book is when Alex and Sarah go to swim in Jellyfish Lake. It’s a tea-colored lake in the middle of one of Palau’s Rock Islands. It’s home to six million golden medusa jellyfish which have been isolated from predators for millennia and lost their ability to sting. Every day, they migrate across the lake, following the sun and returning overnight. They range from the size of a pea to the size of a cantaloupe. In the colder water below, live moon jellyfish, the very ones which gave swimmer Diana Nyad such trouble as she attempted her historic swims from Cuba to the US. Here, they are also stingless.

“I made a mental note: if I ever felt that all was not quite right in the universe, I’d just think that at this very moment, six million friendly cantaloupes in pink tutus were slowly pulsing their way across a small, tea-colored lake in the middle of a remote island in the Western Pacific.”

YES. That.

Rating: Five coconuts with straws!




Cities of Salt (Saudi Arabia)

Book CoverCities of Salt
by Abdelrahmen Munif

courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore



If the novels of William Faulkner were set in the Hellishly hot desert, in an Islamic country, and didn’t make near unintelligible use of local dialect, they might be half as good as this book. (Apologies to Faulkner enthusiasts–I’m not.)

This novel is an easy read, though it is thick, and only the first in a trilogy exploring how a largely Bedouin society changes into an oil extraction emirate. It is banned in several Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia. (This is why I wanted to read it. The author was born to a Saudi father and an Iraqi mother. He was eventually stripped of his Saudi citizenship by the al-Sauds because they were afraid of his novels–so I wanted to find out what, exactly, was so offensive to them. I wanted to know which truths the author had spoken to power. I wanted to know what the al-Sauds are trying to hide.)

map of Saudi ArabiaProtagonists: And Then There Were None

  1. The book starts with a man called Miteb al-Hathal, a member of the Atoum tribe who lives on a hill overlooking an oasis. The arrival of caravans to the oasis is eagerly expected, for travelers bring news, sugar, flour, bolts of cloth, and long-lost sons. In the desert, everything is the reverse of (my patch in north Idaho). Winter is the good season. The oasis provides water, shade, and greenery. Life is hard and people are poor, but life is still good.
Ancient city of Harran

The ancient Mesopotamian city of Harran was famous for its beehive adobe houses

Then, under the auspices of a man called Ibn Rashid, some foreign devils (Americans) arrive. Miteb al-Hathal is immediately suspicious and rides out with his gun. His son Fawaz “said to himself, If he opens fire he’ll set the whole wadi ablaze; we won’t be alone. The people of the wadi wouldn’t let a man fight by himself, they’d fight with him to the end. After the battle they’d ask why he was fighting. Fawaz had heard of such things many times.”

This is what it is to be a member of a desert tribe. But Ibn Rashid betrays them, aiding and abetting the infidels as they destroy the wadi with bulldozers, frightening the men and the camels equally. There is oil and gold beneath the sands, and the Americans and Ibn Rashid are greedy for all of it. The Emir is complicit–Ibn Hathal says that “the emir is kin, but he’s useless.”

Inside a beehive home

Inside a beehive home

2) Ibn Hathal disappears from the narrative now, and we ride with his son Fawaz and his cousin to a new village by the sea, a city called Harran. Ibn Rashid pulls his old tricks in this place, telling the people who live there: “all the land belongs to the government; it is the government’s privilege to take and give out land” and that “they couldn’t eat or drink land, so they had better take what was being offered them now, because someday the land might be taken from them, and then they would be no better than refugees.”

A new and newly-divided city arises–American Harran with swimming pools, gardens and air-conditioning and Arab Harran with mud huts, a new mosque and a fancy Emirate building for guess who (a different useless one). Fawaz and his cousin now disappear from the narrative and Harran itself becomes a character. The rest of the book is devoted to how Harran changes and develops.

Saudi beachI must admit, I was praying to Allah the whole time that something bad would happen to Ibn Rashid, that he would come to a sticky end. SPOILER ALERT: I was not disappointed! From time to time, scantily clad American women are unloaded at the port and the local men think they are sluts. However, back at the oasis in Wadi al-Oyoun, when it still existed, the American oil workers used to lay about in the heat clad only in short trousers and caps and the men of the wadi were equally scandalized and some complained to the Emir that it wasn’t decent. Of course this was because their women had to walk past these bodies on their way to the brook to fetch water.

I don’t agree with or approve of the fixation on controlling women’s bodies.

Neither a Farsi nor a Farce

Camels in the desertIn the hands of a different writer, such as the author of Dear Uncle Napoleon, this novel could have been a farce–he could easily have tweaked it into extreme sarcasm. He chose not to. I think the writer felt the topic was too serious. The comic bits are still delightful. The Emir of Harran, for example, is given a telescope that he can’t stop playing with. He’s invited to a wedding, but delays giving an answer, because he secretly wants to stay home and train his telescope on the event, as it will be well-lit in the darkness. Obsession (in fiction) is nearly always amusing.

Crowded modern cityThere is a diving accident that renders one of the workers “imbecilic” and his uncle comes to Harran, seeking compensation from Ibn Rashid. The villain shows his cowardice by hiding, and is tormented by small boys shouting, “The Bedouin! The Bedouin!” to frighten him from then on. Sometimes he jumps and hides, and sometimes he lets off his gun.

When I looked up the author, after reading this book, I was saddened to find that he has passed away. I wanted to contact him and say how much I enjoyed his book. He had a degree in oil economics, had worked for oil companies, and so really knew how to get inside the heads of these men and the politicians who work for them. The book is immensely engaging and entertaining while being a powerful political statement. It is a portrait of a hugely changing time in society.

Saudi flag is green with white Arabic writing and a swordWas the author born at the time the novel takes place? He was not. The al-Sauds came to power in Saudi Arabia by consolidating many smaller tribes, and this happened in 1932. The author was born in 1931. But this time must have been very alive in his father’s mind. And heart.

Interestingly enough, the author went to Iraq for a time and joined Saddam Hussein’s Bath party, but left when he could no longer ignore what the regime was doing. He was very against it, and against the U.S. invasion. No doubt if Saddam Hussein had lived, he would have revoked the author’s Iraqi citizenship as well.

Rating: Five Stars in the Desert Sky Above an Oasis!

Death and the Penguin (Ukraine)

by Andrey Kurkov

Courtesy of a special order through Auntie’s Bookstore

Map of UkraineFiction.

I have been engrossed in a series with a pet penguin before. In Japan. But never like this. Viktor’s pet Misha came to him when the zoo in Kiev, Ukraine, was unable to afford to feed all its animals following the post-Soviet collapse. They were giving them away to anyone who promised to feed and take care of them. So Viktor got a King Penguin. Misha is his only friend, the only one the socially awkward Viktor can relate to. Like Viktor, Misha often seems depressed.

Viktor longs to get short stories and novels published, but often lacks the motivation to write them. While working for a newspaper, he lands a job writing obelisks–obituaries. Now, in the West, it is common for major newspapers to keep a running file of a few dozen royalty and celebrity obituaries in advance, in case these people die, so they can scoop the competition. (I know this from having worked in newspapers. Queen Elizabeth is one. Angelina Jolie is another.) So Viktor is asked to start an obelisk file on some notables in his country, just in case.

book coverBut something sinister starts happening–the people he writes about start dying. Often just after he writes an obelisk. And he isn’t choosing who to write about anymore, he’s being told. When he asks the Chief of the newspaper he works for what is going on, the man tells him he doesn’t want to know. And that when he does know, his usefulness, his job, and even his existence will no longer be needed.

So Viktor goes along to stay alive, churning out hundreds of these things, rationalizing to himself the whole time. Meanwhile, Misha the penguin is dragging him into life and connection with the world. One evening Viktor is visited by a sinister man called Misha Non-Penguin who delivers obelisk requests to him. The stranger’s 4-year-old daughter falls in love with the penguin, and soon Misha Non-Penguin drops Sonja off to stay with Viktor while he lays low somewhere, waiting for the dust to settle.

Having nobody to penguin-sit Misha when Viktor has to go away on assignment, Viktor calls up the military post and gets a random soldier to watch him. Luckily, Sergey Fishbein is a nice guy and makes friends with Viktor. His niece Nina later comes to babysit Sonja and be her nanny.

Five Bowls of Frozen Salmon

King Penguin

King Penguin

Even though this is a dryly funny dark comic novel, the characters are very real and you can’t help but root for them. I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as thoroughly as I did had it been bleak or depressing. It wasn’t.

I got the strong feeling that Viktor was a mish-mash of all the people in Ukraine who were living their daily lives, keeping their heads down, just trying to enjoy their lives and maintain a sense of inner peace while all around them corruption on a massive scale was taking place. Corruption in which they themselves were unknowing or knowing players.

Viktor talks quite often about how he feels helpless, he has no choice but to do as he’s told, how the 118+ deaths don’t affect him and his cobbled-together family, how things are not right in the city or in the country as a whole and the times are bad, but that people have gotten used to it and now it is the status quo.

One of the great things about this powerful little novel is that you get a strong social critique exclusively through the frame of the plot. No preachiness here.

KievDespite Viktor’s complicity in the murders of the notables–and none of them are blameless–you like him. Despite his poor treatment of Nina, who eventually becomes a girlfriend he neither desires nor loves; despite his lack of love for Sonja, you like him. You like him because he does love his penguin. You like him because he is unexpectedly kind to the old man who used to look after the penguins at the zoo. This old man is just as isolated as Viktor, and when he phones Viktor with stomach pains, Viktor goes around to his flat, rings for an ambulance, and pays the attendants $50 to take the man to a hospital.

Ukraine countrysideConditions in the hospital are shocking and the old man is given no medicine even when they discover his stomach cancer. Viktor is outraged. There is no medicine. All the hospital can offer is bed rest.

The end of the book was neat and tied up the expectations I had in the beginning into a delicious present. Apparently there is a sequel called Penguin Lost, which I would be delighted to get my hands on.

Rating: Five bowls of frozen plaice and a bite of banana!


In one scene, Nina scolds Viktor for giving money to a charity collecting for scientists in Antarctica, telling him it’s a scam. “Remember when they were collecting for a children’s hospital because of Chernobyl?”

In another, some pilots tell him they are flying on “May 9, Victory Day as was.”

A little recent history for you!