195 books


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 WE invite you to take a special journey with us, reading one book from every country in the world. One book obviously can’t begin to reveal an entire country or culture. So think of it simply as an “appetizer” that leaves a memorable taste in your mouth. It may lead to a 2nd or 3rd taste but, if not, we hope to choose books that will make the first taste an enriching experience.  

     Sadly, we’ve already been disappointed too many times in this project by “modern classics” that are far from classic and “old” before you finish their banal pages. Thus, we’ve freely sought out books from earlier times, not only because they’ve stood the test of time, but because they honor both the beauty of words and mankind’s ability to improve.  Books (new or old) that turned out to be drier than melba toast we’ve omitted altogether.    


     P.S.  We’ve largely used two sources to find good, secondhand books. The vast majority of the books we’ve bought have been under $4, including shipping.



     We will be regularly adding to the book list below.

CATEGORY I:  Must Reads

• AFGHANISTAN: The Lightess Sky. By Gulwali Passarlay. This is not an easy read, but neither is it overly, or oppressively, dark as it’s told by a young boy as only a boy could tell it. It is the story of a 12-year-0ld refugee’s journey from Afghanistan to England. It leaves your understanding quietly broadened, while (wholly) innocently, or unconsciously, chastising those who still think the mass displacement of people in the world isn’t everyone’s problem to solve. [Picture the population of Britain; or emptying Arizona, California, Washington state, Oregon and Alaska of all residents. That’s the number of people on earth today who’ve been driven from their homes. Half of them are children.]    

• AMERICA:  1776.  David McCullough — as well as Johnstown Flood by David McCullough.  Both of these books are exceptional on their own, but together they paint an extraordinarily powerful picture of the hope, promise, cost, work and responsibility of freedom. Can a nation really have freedom without knowing its meaning? Both of these books will leave you with much to ponder as well as appreciate. 

• BRAZIL:  The Last of the Tribe.  Monte Reel  |  This book is so thought-provoking (in a much broader way than the immediate subject) that we felt it should go under “Must Reads”. It is the amazing story of decades of work to save the last surviving member of an Indian tribe in the Amazon in Brazil.  Yet, the book raises countless questions on “what matters” and what “progress” really is.  The author does an outstanding job of portraying the story unbiasedly, and from all sides, so that the reader is free to think clearly.  A rare accomplishment among today’s authors. . . .  

• CHINA:  The Genius of China.  Robert Temple.  |  Long before the label “made in China” began to appear on most everything we buy, China was inventing all the things we most use and need.  If you think you knew many of the things China invented, it is quite certain you don’t know a tenth of them. This book will leave you astonished—not only for the quality and quantity of things that have so significantly changed human life on earth, but by the fact that they were often used in China 1000s of years before they were known in Europe.  This book can be read at random, by interest, as each invention has its own chapter . . . but be sure you don’t miss reading the chapters on paper, lacquer, wheelbarrows and plows!  Incredible!

• FINLAND:  The Mediator: Martti Ahtisaari.  Katri Merikallio and Tapani Ruokanen.  |  If you knew nothing more about Finland than this book, it would be enough to make you thank Finland for life.  Ahtisaari might have been the little known president of Finland, but even more amazing is that his decades-long work as the mediator in the world’s most difficult and entrenched conflicts is even less known. His childhood, spent as a refugee himself, taught him one indelible lesson: even your worst enemy must be treated with decency if there is any hope of restoring humanity. We have this remarkable man to thank (not solely, but largely) for peace in Northern Ireland, Namibia, Aceh and Kosovo, and for opening normal relations between China and the West.  Despite receiving the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize, the world can never thank this man enough, but it can learn much from his singular conviction: “All crises are solvable,” as well as in his uncanny wisdom: “There is nothing immoral with talking to your enemy,” and “Negotiations never start from a neutral position . . . it is more important for a mediator to be an honest broker.”  His trademark has been the ability to speak the plain truth, even to the worst perpetrators of cruelty and inhumanity, in a way that it can be heard.  This book should be required reading for all university graduates.   

• FRANCE:  Cyrano de Bergerac.  Edmond Rostand.  |  Forget the movie.  This writer was meant to be read (despite this being a play).  This is what writing should be. You will laugh until you cry, and cry at the beauty of thoughts carried over continents and centuries by words.

• GERMANY:  The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.  John Boyne.  |  While this book is fictional,  it is based, in part, on a true story.  It is simply an unforgettable work by a very gifted writer.  The words pull you along such that you cannot flip the pages fast enough.  And all the while you are conscious of the fact that you are being allowed to think. What is remarkable is that this has been achieved with the lightest touch. It is a story told many times (the story of life on “either side” of a prison came during the holocaust)—and yet this is a whole new story whose love and innocence do not allow us to cave in to despair, but allow us to live above it, even as the two hero boys of the book did.  (This is a case where the book is far superior to the movie.)  PLEASE NOTE:  We will be adding a beautiful, non-war book about Germany soon.

JAPAN:  HAIKU: An Anthology of Japanese Poems. Compiled by Stephen Addiss, Fumiko Yamamoto, and Akira Yamamoto. |  NOTE: There are several haiku anthologies so the names of the compilers are important as this book is considered the best of them all. This book is exquisite on all counts: to read, to hold, to look at.  In short, it’s everything a book should be. You leave it feeling refreshed and dignified. 

• KENYA  Mama Panya’s Pancakes. A Kenyan village tale retold by Mary and Rich Chamberlin.  This is another MUST READ children’s book for all ages. It is a delightful glimpse into the beauty and riches of the Kenyan culture.   

• KENYA  West with the night. Beryl Markham. This autobio-graphy is a Must Read.  The author is not only a remarkable woman (actually astonishing woman) but opens up the country of Kenya and its people with poetical beauty.  You may find yourself wanting to read this book twice. 

• MALAWI:  The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.  William Kamkwamba.  |  This book should be required reading for all high school students.  William, due to poverty, was forced to drop out of school at age 14. But he did not accept his fate.  He walked some 5 miles each day to a small public library (little did the NGO that built the library know what they were facilitat- ing!), taught himself English and the basics of electrical engineering. With these skills, not to mention a staggering amount of courage to face the obstacles continually strewn in his path, he figured out how to make a windmill and brought electricity to his village—before being catapulted to the world stage where he is now able to help his entire country.  This is an incredibly inspiring book. 

• NEPAL: Little Princes. By Conor Grennan. If a book ever fell under the category of “Must Reads,” it is this one. It is the true story of one man and his close friend’s efforts to bring home the lost, “trafficked” children of Nepal to their families. It is one of the most hopeful, promising, heart-lifting, awe-inspiring books you could ever read. Indeed, at times, how Grennan managed to do what he did is almost Biblical in its proportions. Don’t be surprised if you can’t put it down.

• NIGERIA:  Anna Hibiscus. By Atinuke.  This is a MUST READ children’s book for all ages! The author, from Nigeria, spent her childhood in both Africa and the U.K.  She is a world renowned story teller—for good reason.  This delightfull book is what we’ve been looking for: a “real” glimpse into what makes each culture and country special.  There are several little children’s books by this author, but we recommend starting with this one as it was her first book and sets the stage for the others.  (Note: the other books have the little hero’s name in them, but only this book is just her name.)   

• SOUTH AFRICA: The Covenant. By James A. Michener. We almost put this book down . . . several times and for various reasons.  But we’re very glad we kept reading.  The book not only must have been one of his most difficult to write, it is one of the most thought-stirring, thought-provoking books you could read. It uses the long history of South Africa to not only explain how apartheid came to be (and how “miraculous” its overthrow was), but as a lens through which to look at “man-made” religion and its effects in every corner of the world. The book is more than a little life-changing (for those who are not afraid to honestly examine the human condition) as it is so astonishingly objective. It does much to unveil the incredible “patience” with which oppression takes hold but how, inevitably, that hold will always be broken. 

• State of PALESTINE:  Blood Brothers.  Elias Chacour.  |  One of the most powerful and hopeful ongoing true stories you could read from Palestine. A testament to courage, persis- tence, and the conviction that humanity itself is more important than stones, monuments, or plots of earth. It is a story of the work of peace in a land where everyone says there is none.

• POLAND:  Poland.  James A. Michener.  |  This book could be said to be Michener at his best—at least, it gives the strong feeling that this book meant a great deal to him. It is less of a novel than his other books and more actual history—and is repeatedly an eye-opener. As always, it is richly written but, even more importantly, this book truly makes you think. Note: Chapter 9, called “The Terror,” many readers may want to skip as it is very difficult reading. (This is the only time we’ve found the retelling of history by Michener too much to take.)    

• RUSSIA:  A Gentleman in Moscow. Amor Towles  |  Few books come close to capturing all that is Russia and Russian better than this modern work of historical fiction. The story follows the life of Count Alexander Rostov whose love of life—that is, his Russianness—masters the new communist powers. The essence of the novel is summed up in one sentence, delightfully, creatively, and humorously depicted page after page: “If a man does not master his circum- stances, he is bound to be mastered by them.”

• SOUTH AFRICA:  The World that was Ours. Hilda Bernstein  |  We put this book under “Must Reads” because it is such a needed testament today of the power of moral courage.  It is the story of the days leading up to the trial, as well as the testimony at the trial, that sen- tenced Nelson Mandela and 10 other men to life in prison for the sake of challenging mental, physical, social, and spiritual oppression. It is a story that gives resounding voice to the point that freedom finds meaning only when it elevates the race, and a sober reminder that free- dom has a steep price: the tireless, tenacious preservation of morality.  Few stories portray so vividly the power of honesty and integrity.    

• YEMEN:  A Winter in Arabia: A journey through Yeman. Freya Stark  |  Called, in turns, the “Poet of Travel,” and the “Dame of Travel,” Freya Stark is in a league of her own.  This memoir of her journey through Yemen is rich, witty, direct, gripping—and poetic.  Yet, she also manages to “speak plainly” about cultural differences without an ounce of ill will.   “No” was not in her vocabulary—and risk? She considered it “the salt and sugar of life”.  She loved mankind and refused to be at odds with anyone, anywhere. She had an amazing ability to live with charity of spirit, rather than judgment. This is simply a must read. NOTE: When Freya was 88, a British film crew filmed her journey high up into the mountains of Nepal.  Watch here.

CATEGORY II:  Good Reads

• AMERICA: Washington’s Spies. Alexander Rose. | This is the little told story of how General George Washington—unable to outfight the strongest military power on earth—brought about the impossible independence of the colonies by outwitting the enemy through relentlessly uncovering their plans, means, and methods. Washington’s sheer persistence, together with the bravery, dedication and patience of the spies, finally wore out the will of the mighty British Empire.    

• AUSTRIA:  Mozart by Piero Melograni.  This is a very interesting read even for someone who does not really “understand” the music of Mozart.  It is a fascinating look into the culture of both Austria and Europe, in that so much of the world at that time supported and under- stood the value of the arts to a nation.  Despite being a musical genius, it is nonetheless clear, that Mozart appeared at the perfect time in history to become what he was to become. 
     This biography is extremely readable and not intellectual.  As you read, the meaning of all classical music begins to take on a whole new meaning. You may find yourself pausing to jump on the internet and listen to a clip of the music under discussion.  In short, this is a very good read.

• BANGLADESH:  Songs at the River’s Edge. Katy Gardner | This is a gentle account of a young woman’s 15 months spent living in a remote Bangladeshi village.  It gives an intimate view of a (largely hidden) group of people of our earth we wouldn’t have otherwise.  The book is gracious in its descriptions. It is honest while honoring both reader and the author’s subject matter. 

• EGYPT:  How the Great Pyramid was Built.  Craig B. Smith | Forget for a moment how (over 20 years and with over 2 million 2.5 to 15 ton-weight stones) the 455 foot pyramid of King Khufu was built.  Before that could happen in the middle of an empty desert, a full-scale shipyard had to be built so that when the Nile flooded each year, the stones could be brought down the river close to the building site. Ships and barges needed to be built, as well as the buildings to build them in. Canals needed to be built along with a new city to house the thousands of workers and their families. Bakeries, fisheries, and markets needed to be set up and equipped, as well as workshops to forge and build all the tools needed. An area of about 13 acres needed to be cleared of sand (!) to get down to the bedrock on which the pyramid could be built. And before all that, people had to learn how to write, to know how to do stag- geringly complex mathematical equations, to count days and make calendars (to co-oordinate the work force), to train and supervise thousands of workers on a daily basis; to understand astronomy (the positioning of the pyramid was essential to its meaning) and to have created a meaningful (to them) religion, as the whole purpose of the pyramid was to be a stepping stone to heaven for their king. Once you have considered all that, the second half of the book delves into the theories of how such wonder was built with hand tools and mere human strength.  This is truly a fun, fascinating read. For those of you who don’t have quite enough patience for detailed books, here’s a 45 minute documentary revealing the lastest building theory—one that is very convincing.  HERE 

• ENGLAND:  In the Beginning.  Alister Mcgrath | This is a very readable, engaging book. After reading it, you can’t help but look in sheer amazement at the making of the King James   Version of the Bible. Consider that it first took the coming into being of one of the most com- plicated inventions of all time: the printing press. (The first 400 German Bibles Gutenberg printed each cost the equivalent of a “town house” in any major Germany city. The print run sold out immediately. Later editions cost the equivalent of three year’s salary of a well-off merchant. Yet, Gutenberg couldn’t keep up with the demand.) Consider as well, that twice in its history the English language almost became extinct. What did survive was, for centuries, considered a lowly, “vulgar” language not suited for the ideas of God. For centuries, the Church of England held firm that only Latin was a suitable language for religious works.
     By the time King James came to power, the Geneva Bible (an English language Bible) was so woven into the fabric of religious and societal life that it would have seemed as impossible to do away with it as doing away with the ocean. Finally, you had the “religious boiling pot” of contending views: Catholic, Protestant, Puritan, and Anglican that were as fierce as they were un-Christian in being determined to become “the religion” of England. King James needing,  at all costs, to maintain stability and prevent civil war, ordered a translation team of 49 men   of all the opposing factions (!) to come up with a translation that favored none of them but was faithful to the original texts. (Up until that time one person, sometimes two men working together, were responsible for any new translation.) Thus, this is a story of what decades of events did, and could not do, to prevent a Bible whose result was such a staggeringly accurate translation of the original textsThe story of its making—over decades and against such incre- dible odds—quietly asserts why it will never be improved upon and why its very existence could calmly be called a miracle.

• ETHIOPIA:  In Ethiopia with a Mule.  Dervla Murphy.  |  This book is a must read simply because it’s hard to believe there is any other story like it (except, of course, for Ms. Murphy’s other books). Dervla Murphy, a life-long traveler and travel writer, is hard to categorize.  Some, in describing her, waver between “courageous” and “crazy”. Others between an “irritant” and a “romantic”.  While being an unquestionably “coarse” character, she also has a remarkable ability to value, reverence, and describe all that is beautiful and gracious around her. In addition, as she has said of herself, she was born with a rare quality of being fearless.  That underlies the whole of all of her stories.  Her explanation for always traveling alone is that it has made her dependent on those she meets for survival and, in her estimate, that is the only way for the peoples of our world to bond. 

• GHANA  My first coup d'etat. John Dramani Mahama. This book is, like so much in Ghana, dignified and gracious. Written beautifully, cleverly and even poetically, it gives a lovely feel for the country, with its many surprising cultural traditions, even while imparting a resilience when explaining the difficult times the country has been through.  This is a very, very good read. 

• INDIA:  The Blue Umbrella.  Ruskin Bond.  |  From the land that could produce a Gandhi, and acclaimed historical novels such as E.M. Forster’s memorable Passage to India, we offer a short story by India’s beloved Ruskin Bond. His stories are all drawn from life and from an insatiable interest in watching good push up and grow despite the harsh climate of human history and the cold winds of a caste system. Another of his truly great and memorable stories is, The Woman on Platform 8.   

• ISRAEL:  The Source.  James A. Michener.  |  This is a very long read.  But few people can open the understanding of a people and culture like Michener.  Chronicling the long pre-history and history of the Jewish people, Michner, more often than not, casts women as the catalyst for change.  In a key moment in the novel, the wife of a key figure in the book says,    “. . .with other gods he would have been another man.”  Again, a key figure says, fascinatingly, “To understand the Jews, you must understand the book of Deuteronomy.”  You cannot leave The Source without feeling you have much more understanding of a people who are so influential.

• JAMAICA: The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole. Mary Seacole. | This is truly one of the most unique books you could ever read. If the name Mary Seacole means nothing to you, you aren’t alone—although the name should be every bit as well known as that of Florence Nightingale or Clara Barton.  The only difference is that Mary Seacole was a Creole living in a time when even the most remarkable lives could be hidden by the veil of one’s skin color. Yet, she was convinced that her life purpose was to minister to those in need and, as a result, she was literally fearless in the presence of sickness, disease, war and death.  Returning a virtual hero in the eyes of the soldiers she saved during the Crimean War, she would have died a pauper had the soldiers not raised money to support her. (She had gone to Crimea on her own being unable to secure the support or employment of any government or service organi- zation.) Both her earlier and later life experiences are told with an “innocent honesty” that is almost unduplicated in literature.

• JAPAN:  The Art of Suiseki. Willi Benz | Though technically an art form originating in China, most of the great collections of suiseki (natural minature rock sculptures) grace the homes and museums of Japan.  (There are also outdoor suiseki gardens but the book mainly illustrates small minatures that grace the inside of homes.) Like all things Japanese, this is a lovely book to read and a welcome reminder of how much we need the grace and peace of things beautiful.   

• KENYA  Unbowed. Wangari Maathai. This autobiography is a true testament to persistence and the astonishing things it can accomplish.  The author is a Nobel Peace Prize winner for her work in Kenya to further human rights and democracy. Her most amazing work however is the Green Belt Movement.  Starting with a handful of tree seedlings and her own humble labor, the movement has now planted more than 35 million trees in Kenya alone. The trees have restored the devasted land and the soil, and with that have ended drought, hunger and poverty . . . and it all was done against the relentless opposition of her government. There are countless gems of wisdom in this book that know no cultural bounds.   

• KOSOVO:  The Day of the Pelican. Katherine Paterson | This very short novel (easily read in one evening) is masterfully written for young people, but certainly not “beneath” the interest of any thoughtful adult. It is as gentle account as could be written (without avoiding the truth) of a real Kosovar family who are now living in the author’s home town in Vermont. The book deals masterfully with the struggle to face hatred and powerfully (because this is a true story) gives the victory to the logic of love.  Would that there were more such strong, useful books!  For anyone with a family living in a neighborhood with refugees, or with children going to school where there are refugees, this is a must read.  

• MALAYSIA: The Wit and Wisdom of Dr. Mahathir Mohamed. By Mahathir Mohamed. This is definitely one of the most unique books you could ever read and one that gives more than a little food for thought (deep, honest thinking)!  Dr. Mohamed, the longest serving (22 years) Prime Minister of Malaysia is, from what we understand, considered a controversial figure. Yet, the incredible wisdom he expressed in a recent United Nations talk led us to search out a book about him and this was the result. His grasp of the meaning of democracy is no less evident than his willingness to call a spade, a spade.   

• MAURITANIA  Under an African sky. Peter Hudson. This is a rare find—the story of a man who has returned to one of the most challenging places on earth to live to help the local people, with grass roots efforts, restore water and forestation to their barren lands. The author is “soft-spokenly” honest about the people’s shortcomings while wonderfully able to see all that is good—and help strengthen it.  It is a beautiful story and an extremely wise example of “charitable” work that really works

• MORROCO:  The Caliph’s House.  Tahir Shah.  |  This book is an eye-opener, leaving one feeling what an utter miracle it is that so many wildly different cultures are able to co-exist on earth!  This true story follows the saga of the Shah family moving from their settled life in London (both harried as well as stiflingly pretictable) to an elegant old palace in Morroco —barely habitable. Their unimaginable ordeal of renovating the palace is really the story of learning the Morrocan culture, a culture alarmingly governed by the fear of “jinns”—evil spirits of tradition and their own making—wholly illusory—yet demanding to be feared and obeyed. That such superstitions are still adamantly, even passionately, held to as the “heart” of their culture is more than a little sobering. Yet, in the end, Tahir Shah writes that Morroco won the family’s heart—or, did it do so simply because they had to thus believe given all they had invested in their new lives?  As well as being well written, this is a very useful book in terms of learning about the cultures of our world.

• PAKISTAN:  Yesterday I was the Moon.  Noor Unnahar.  | This modest book of poetry by a first-time author is a gem. Written by a young Pakistani woman whose family needed to flee the country due to violence, she seems to have used her new home, America, to make her world better. This book not only touches the heart with its thoughtfulness but, equally important, proves that goodness and beauty are to be found in all cultures and that there is no culture that cannot deeply enrich us.

• PERU:  Eight Feet in the Andes.  Dervla Murphy.  | Like Ms. Murphy’s other books, this one is equally mind-boggling in its rugged adventurism. The exception with this story is that she brought her nine-year-old daughter with her. The 900 mile journey up, over, and along the Andes is incredibly described and leaves one with a sense of the author’s sheer reverence for beauty (and disdain for life-deadening materialism).  She gives many useful insights into what has shaped the country of Peru today. Still, one finishes the story feeling not so much respect as a sense of the author’s lack of responsibility—endangering both herself and her daughter, and dependent on the poorest of people for support throughout the journey.

• PERU:  The Potato in World History.  John Reader.  | Note: this book is not just for deeply rooted, dyed in the beet juice, gardeners: You’ll never nibble a French fry the same way again after read- ing this delightful and fascinating book—which is as much about world history as it is about the amazing role the potato played in it. If you still aren’t convinced, we’ll give you some highlights:       
     The first potatoes were grown 12,000 years ago. Some were found in a bog in Peru that dated back 8,000 (though it is not clear if they were still edible . . . .) While the Irish potato famine is well known, not so well known is the number of civilizations potato harvests saved from starvation.       
     The potato made its journey from Peru to Spain and then to the Canary Islands, Belgium and other European countries in the mid-1500s. Yet how they ever “took root” is almost impossible to imagine. At that time they were only the size of cherry tomatoes and somewhat bitter in taste. They came from a climate that has 12 hours of sun year round and had to adapt to the cold and rain of Europe. Finally, because the Bible does not mention them, the Church deemed them of the devil (because they grew in the dark) and proclaimed that they caused leprosy!              
     Having finally overcome those hurdles, potatoes fuelled not only slavery (in South America), but the industrial revolution in England, population growth in Europe, and the very first use of chemical pesticides worldwide.  While it took 3 centuries for the potato to circle the globe and look like what we know today, when it finally made it to China (one of the last holdouts in the land of rice) it took them only 3 decades to become the world’s largest producer and consumer of potatoes. 

• TAJIKISTAN: Cultures of the world: Tajikistan. Rafis Abazov. This is a delightful book you should be able to find in your local library.  Perhaps it is best described as a “kind book” purposely showing the best and the beauty of a culture.  It is a quick read, but leaves you with a lasting feeling of this rich culture tucked, like a little cap, atop Afghanistan and Pakistan.    

• TIBET:  Tibet: Land of Gentleman Brigands.  Gianni and Tiziana Baldizzone.  |  This is largely a magnificent photo journey across one of the most remote regions of Tibet.  It is a unique glimpse of a people, a glimpse we might never have had, had it not been for a truly courageous journey taken in the early 1920s by French journalist Alexandra David-Neel.  She was particularly fascinated with these people whose lives are lived in and shaped by silence. Her journeys, writings and photographs amazed readers 100 years ago. This current book retraces her journey and brings it alive with new color photography.

• TIBET/NEPAL:  East of Lo Monthang: in the land of Mustang.  Peter Matthiessen.  |  This is another magnificent photo journey across one of the most secret regions of Nepal at the border of Tibet.  Lo Monthang is, culturally, as Tibetan as it is Nepali.  It is a kingdom of unbroken hereditary rulers that goes back to 1380!  While today the rulers have lost their “power” and the walled city is technically a part of Nepal, the 100+ people living there con- tinue a lifestyle centuries old. Very, very few foreigners have been allowed into Lo Monthang which makes this photo/journal a very rare look into this rare, remote culture. Such books are a fascinating look at the sheer diversity of our world—and it’s wonder. 

CATEGORY III:  “Books that Shaped the World” 

Recently, a BBC story entitled, “100 books that shaped the world,” more than fascinated us. The books included such well known titles as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Hamlet, War and Peace, Aesop’s Fables, Moby-Dick, and even Alice in Wonderland. We decided to read some of the lesser known works. You might call them a “reading workout,” but we have found them very thought-provoking precisely because their words were actually able to shift human perceptions.   

• NETHERLANDS:  The Praise of Folly.  Erasmus.  |  Don’t expect to rush through this book, but don’t be surprised at how incredibly relevant it is to our present world, despite the fact that it was published in 1511.  Both Erasmus and his “Folly” played no small role in the Reformation. He is largely to thank for the “revolutionary” idea that each one is capable of knowing truth without someone else interpreting it for him or her.  He demanded trans- parency and truth from every earthly “authority” and deplored the various guises that con- cealed the true nature of so many human institutions. Erasmus’s ability to reason and cut through complexity is staggering and continually takes your breath away.   

CATEGORY IV:  On the Lighter Side

• IRELAND:  An Irish Country Childhood.  Marrie Walsh.  |  It is a book filled with words that paint rich pastoral pictures; words that fill the heart with warmth; words that are gentle.  Your only regret will be that you are reading about Ireland and not there.  The author begins with the wish that people today could somehow learn to be as content as people were when she was a child. This memoir is homespun, but that only adds to its appeal.  While the author writes of her girlhood a decade before World War II, it would not be surprising if many of the details she depicts you could find today—even the most surprising of all: the full measure of myths and ghost stories children were raised on. It is a story that assures you that neighbors were once more like family, and the result of hard physical labor was gratitude for life and a deep unity in community.

• MEXICO and CENTRAL AMERICA:  The True History of Chocolate.  Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe.  |  The first chocolate (drunk, not eaten in bars, for four-fifths of its history) would not be recognizeable today, basically because it had NO sugar and was often mixed with maize and drunk like a watery oatmeal. Thus, how it became so coveted (and reinvented) is quite a story, as revealed in the Coe’s book.  While most readers will know that cacao beans were long used as a currency in Mexico and Central America, less known is the fact that fields of cocao trees were the source of earlier wars on earth even as oil fields are today!  That is, in part, because the cocao tree seems the least “natural” plant on earth in no way manifesting the “be fruitful and multiply” blessing of God’s creation.  The tree grows only 20 degrees north or south of the equator—and that with incredible finickiness!  It does not seed itself (it must be seeded by humans or monkeys).  If 2 or 3% of its blossoms produce cocao pods that is considered good. The pods spoil quickly if not properly cared for and the process of turning the beans into something edible is incredibly invovled and long.  If nothing else, after reading this book, you’ll never eat (or drink) chocolate in quite the same way again. / P.S.  So valuable were cacao beans as currency that they were even counterfeited and (up until quite recent times with food regulations), the red powder of bricks (!) was often added to cacao powder to bulk it out (thus using less real cacao) and deceive buyers and consumers.  

• RUSSIA and ISRAEL:  Tevye the Dairyman and The Railroad Stories. Sholem Aleichem / Translation: Hillel Halkin  |  This is an extremely memorable read.  Aleichem was a contem- porary of Anton Chekhov and an equally talented short story writer. Aleichem quickly wins the hearts of his readers by willingly giving us a character who can easily laugh at himself and change his views as he sees his own short-comings. The humor of the stories is as witty as it is wonderful. The biggest surprise is perhaps how the author manages to change us.  //  NOTE: We highly recommend the Hillel Halkin translation.  In addition, in the “Dairyman” stories the author is clearly at “his peak” of writing, but we were unable to find an edition with just the “Dairyman” stories. 

CATEGORY V:  Thought-Provoking

• INDIA:  KOH-I-NOOR: The history of the world’s most infamous diamond.  W. Dalrymple and A. Anand. | With the exception of a few sadly gratuitous paragraphs here and there, this work (especially Part II) is more than a little thought-provoking and worth thinking about.  It is not only the story of the world’s most famous diamond but, more accurately, the mist-like notions that fill men’s thoughts and drive them, and nations, to covet a piece of stone the size of a hen’s egg, even at the expense of their lives and their nations’ dignity.  From it’s earliest days, the diamond was said to be worth “two and a half days food . . . for the whole world”. Perhaps its truer value was as a symbol of sovereignty for the people of India and for Britain, the symbol of an empire. Even more interesting than the diamond’s long journey from hand to hand, is the concise, vividly told histories of Afghanistan, India and Imperial Britain.  Even today, the diamond’s story lives on (in court cases and diplomatic disputes) and has much to say about our world and its priorities. 

• IRAN:  The Conference of the Birds.  Farid ud-Din Attar.  |  This is considered the foremost masterpiece of Persian poetry, an epic poem consisting of over 4500 lines. The author’s under- standing of human nature’s reluctance to get on with “the spiritual journey” was staggering.  It may well be many readers’ first experience with reading a book that made them better, even though the ideas are opposed to their own.  The work is a testament to ideas sincerely, searchingly, and beautifully written—even though another’s sense of things may sadden us.

• IRELAND:  Everybody Matters.  Mary Robinson.  |  If you like a story about courage, conviction, and the unflinching willingness to “speak the truth to power,” you will be glad you read this book, even though there are more than a few very dry “melba toast” bits you’ll want to skim over.  Nonetheless, Mary Robinson, as the first woman president of Ireland, the first woman UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and a founding member of The Elders is a fearless thinker and speaker—having spent her life speaking plainly to issues regarding her own church/religion and to the most powerful organizations and leaders in the world.  She is not a particularly strong writer, nonetheless, this biography (particularly chapters 16, 18, and 19) are worth the read if you can get a copy of this from your local library.  

• KENYA/SOMALIA:  City of Thorns. Ben Rawlence | This book is the story of the country you could call Refugee Camp. While camps exist all over the world, they are all united in their deplorable, corruption-breeding-conditions—and degrade the whole of life on earth however reluctant we are to admit that. Dadaab, in Kenya, the world’s largest refugee camp, is bigger than the city of New Orleans, has hotels, cinemas, and restaurants (however primitive they all may be) and is utterly unendurable, a state of existence that only ignorance, self-deception or the callousness of materialism could continue to tolerate.  Few books are more eye-opening to the fundamental change needed on earth: the honest, fearless, and long-overdue battle against materialism. 

• KURDISTAN/SYRIA:  Nujeen. Nujeen Mustafa and Christina Lamb.| This story of 2 sisters, Nujeen and Nasrine Mustafa, who made the 3,600 mile journey from Syria to Germany, is like many refugee stories—except that Nujeen is in a wheelchair that Nasrine pushed through fields, over rocks, and down roads filled with more and more fences closing borders. The Mustafa family are Kurds (and the book is a vivid insight into the culture and spirit of the Kurds) who first were forced to flee to Syria and then from Syria. The book is not overly or gratuitously graphic and is unique in allowing us to see the plight of refugees through the eyes of a child.  The book should almost be under the “Must Read” category . . . at least until humankind shakes off its amazing lethargy and brings the tragedy of self-serving wars (and their consequences) to an end.  We do have an obligation to end this refugee crisis and we cannot as long as we are largely ignorant of what it really means to be a refugee.    

• SOMALIA:  Keeping Hope Alive. Dr. Hawa Abdi | This book is impossible to “classify”.  It is written by one of the bravest and most unsung hereos on earth today. Dr. Hawa Abdi was the first female gynecologist in Somalia—no small feat in and of itself. But the real story is how, for more than 20 years, she has sheltered on her land, fed, cared for, and educated some 90,000 Somalians.  Yes—90,000. How she did it is almost Biblical in scope.  When civil war broke out in the country in the early 1990s her “real work” began and has never stopped.  The refugees who have come to build simple stick homes on her land she calls her “guests” and has always treated them that way.  One telling sentence in the book is, “Only a woman can do women’s work.”  By that she did not mean “drudge” work.  She meant the work that only a woman would have the love and courage to dare to do.  The book does not end happily, as you would wish.  Her country is considered “the most failed state on earth” and the senseless fighting between clans continues.  Yet, if a country could produce even one such woman, that is the real seed from which a new country will surely grow. 

• SPAIN, ARABIA, BRAZIL (?):  The Alchemist. Paulo Coelho. |  Having been translated into more than 70 languages and written by Brazil’s most acclaimed author about a Spanish boy traveling to Egypt in search of treasure (and, just to complicate things a bit more, it is, in fact, a Brazilian retelling of a tale from “1001 Arabian Nights”), this book fell under the “thought provoking” category. In speaking of the young hero, the author says, “From a child he had wanted to know the world. This was more important to him than knowing God.” The reader is left wondering if, in the end, even the author thought the treasure so dearly sought was no treasure at all and not worth the arduous journey.     

CATEGORY VI:  Sobering

• NORTH KOREA: Without You There is No Us.  Suki Kim  |  This account of a young woman who taught school to the regime’s “upper crust” sons, leaves the reader greatly sobered by the apparent ease with which all citizens lie to each other (and themselves), yet going to great lengths to pretend that all is well. It is a sobering look at slow, patient, and persistent ways mental oppression overtakes an entire nation if it stops thinking.  

• QATAR: Jassim: The Leader. Founder of QatarMohamed A. J. Althani  |  We chose this book based on the following description on the dust jacket from the author: “In short, we’ll have to imagine a place where there was no concept of unity except as an idea in one young man’s head. Unlike with Kuwait or Oman at the beginning of the nineteenth century, there was no inevitability that Qatar would emerge as a nation in its own right. That it did so, and would become one of the richest and most influential for its modest size, is testament to a truly remarkable man.”  It is a story that will leave the reader with a whole different sense of unity—a sense westerners cannot, by and large, easily understand.  Equally important, however, are current and amazing news stories such as THIS ONE.

• UAE: Wink of the Mona LisaMohammad al Murr  |  The author is currently the head of the Dubai Cultural Council and considered one of UAE’s foremost modern writers. He is, indeed, a talented writer, yet this collection of short stories, based on everyday modern life, opens a surprising cultural window—leaving one unexpectedly aware of the greatly differing codes of ethics between East and West. 


 ©InterestEng. July 2013 - April 2022 §  The stories in the magazine portion of the site are written by English language learners. Stories are corrected by a native English speaker.  § Photos are staff photos or used with permission.  §  To contact us:  go.gently.on@gmail.com