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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.    

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     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.

     BookFinder

     AbeBooks

     We will be regularly adding to the book list below.


CATEGORY I:  Must Reads

• 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.

• 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. 

• 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.”

• 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

• 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 

• 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. 

• 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 (which can be found online) 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.  

• 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.         

• 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.

• 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 respect, but a sense of the author’s reckless lack of responsibility—endangering both herself and her daughter, and dependent on the poorest of people for support throughout the journey. 

• 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.


CATEGORY III:  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 IV:  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. Scattered all over the world, the camps are nonetheless 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 primi- tive 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 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 V:  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. 

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 ©InterestEng. July 2013  §  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 or used with permission.  §  To contact us:  go.gently.on@gmail.com