Friday, July 29, 2011

Off the Beaten Track: Peace Corps

Edith McClintock returns as our guest this week. She’s an American writer and traveler and makes her living in the environmental field. Her first mystery, Monkey Love and Murder, is set at a spider monkey research camp in the Amazon . Her second is the first in a series about Miami politics. She blogs about her travels off the beaten track at

I’m typing this in Tusheti National Park in the Republic of Georgia, my feet perched on a wood stump in a small detached kitchen as I wait for the wood burning fire to heat up my water. I spent thirty minutes lighting the damn thing, only my caffeine addiction insisting I not give up.

Tusheti is a spectacular alpine region along the southern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains bordering Dagestan and Chechnya. I’m visiting two friends who are living here for the summer. One of them, Tony, trekked up the muddy road this morning to get a bucket of water before leaving for his hour-long walk to work. I’ve already used half of it to wash a few sweaty clothes from yesterday’s hike. I want to use the rest to wash myself, but that leaves nothing for drinking or cleaning hands post-outhouse, so I will save the bathing for another day as I have no idea where to find more water.

Tony and Seth are working at the park headquarters on an ecotourism project. Like me, they’re former Peace Corps volunteers here for three months doing a Peace Corps Response project. Tony is living in what used to be a small park museum, with empty displays and a gorgeous view of the surrounding mountains.

Unlike “normal” Peace Corps, we applied for our jobs (mine is at the Ministry of Environment in Tbilisi). The living standards and salary are the same as Peace Corps, but psychologically it’s light-years away. If we were still in Peace Corps proper, we’d be in training for another month, still learning the language and culture and living with a host family. We’d probably be in culture shock—with two more years to go.

Most Peace Corps volunteers hop on a plane with two suitcases, arrive in their hither-to-fore unknown country, and don’t even learn their assignments until the end of training when they move to their village or town or park—home for the next two years. I was fortunate enough to at least know my assignment when I left for Peace Corps in Suriname, but that jump into the unknown was definitely the scariest thing I’ve ever done.

I learned a lot during those two years. Including the many flaws of Peace Corps as an organization. The volunteers are often young and unprepared for what they’ll face: the rules and gossip endless, the misunderstandings between staff and volunteers often insurmountable. But the more I see of development work around the world, the more I respect Peace Corps volunteers. Not so much for what they do, but how they live.

Few foreigners go deeper into a culture. Because the work and pay is usually at the community level, you have to adjust your attitude to money, to shopping, to what you really need to stay sane and happy. You learn to take local transportation, to haggle over prices, and eat only local foods.

Right before I left for my original two-year Peace Corps assignment, a good friend from Brazil asked me, “Why would you choose to live in the developing world? I escaped from that and thank god every day I made it to the U.S.!”

It’s a legitimate question about why any sane person, certainly anyone over the age of twenty-one would choose near poverty for two years or to place themselves under the rather capricious patriarchal system that is Peace Corps, “the organization”.

It’s certainly not to change the world. If you join Peace Corps thinking that, even in reference to your village or school, you’re destined for disappointment. I think most Peace Corps volunteers will agree it’s more about changing yourself.

It’s better to join for simple, personal reasons. Whether it’s a love of travel, or cultural immersion, or love for teaching, or love for your counterpart. Maybe you just want to work in the development field and need to pay your dues overseas. Or maybe you want to escape the fast-paced technological world. Everyone joins for a different reason. But rarely is it as altruistic as it might seem to outsiders.

For me, I’ve done it three times now (two years in Suriname as a Peace Corps volunteer and two three-month assignments through Peace Corps Response). I’ve done it for job reasons (wanting to work overseas again) but also for love. Love of the unknown, of the adventure, of disconnecting, of the random, amazing people you meet along the way—even people from your own country you might never have met because of age or class or politics.

I love developing a new appreciation for friends and family back home. For the simple pleasure of a hot bath. For turning on a faucet that produces clean fresh water. But most relevant right now, I love the easy access that comes with visiting other Peace Corps volunteers—Tusheti being a perfect example.

I’m here in a park I’d never heard of a few months ago. I’m a tourist visiting friends. Yet because of their friendship and connections and language skills, we can wander over mountain peaks, through alpine valleys scattered with wildflowers and ancient tower fortresses, and into a remote, nomadic village and have the local policemen invite us in for a feast (a supra) today, a local festival tomorrow, and who knows what the day after.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Prodigy In My Family?

Levy at a chess tournament
As a working mom, I had to enroll my older son in an after-school care program when he’d entered kindergarten. The program charged $7 for the unstructured afternoon time per day, and $10 for the enrichment option. I signed him up for painting because he loved to draw and chess because every person in my family played it, moi included. No one was particularly hopeful he’d grasp the concept – up to that point, my father’s attempts to teach him the basic principles failed miserably. Levy simply didn’t have the patience to stay in one place for more than a minute. Levy’s father said he’d do much better in gymnastics, but that class was already full. 

I figured Levy would learn the pieces’ names, some moves, and we’d call it a start.
My Size Trophy!

Whether it was the right moment, the right setting, or the right teacher, but the game took. Within months, Levy learned not just the moves, but strategy and tactics. When he started consistently beating every kid in his section, we took him to a children’s tournament hosted by Susan Polgar at her New York chess club (she was the Women's World Chess Champion from 1996 until 1999) – and he won first prize. 

In Russia, chess is as much of a favorite past time as baseball is in America. If you didn’t learn from your parents, you picked it up from your cousins or the elders on the park benches. Schools hosted tournaments, and social clubs sponsored competitions. Coaches scavenged students’ organizations for talent for their teams. Being a chess player was an honor. It meant you were smart.

Depending on the sources, chess arrived in Russia around the 10th century by way of Baghdad, the Byzantine, or perhaps even the Vikings (see Supriya’s post on its history). Around 1262, it received a name: shakhmaty (checkmate). Supposedly, it was banned in 1550s by Ivan the Terrible for unclear reasons. The first chess book published in Russia was a translation of Benjamin Franklin's Morals of Chess. Then, in 1824, Alexander Petrov, who had held the title of the best Russian player for over half a century, wrote  A Systemized Game of Chess. In 1886, St. Petersburg held a telegraph match against London – and won. 

Infamous for their asinine judgment, the Bolsheviks were precipitous to dub the game as a "decadent bourgeois past time." Yet the ban was short-lived: the tradition had long roots and numerous enthusiasts, including the proponents of the new regime. When Chess Master Ossip Bernstein was arrested for being a bankers’ adviser and ordered shot by a firing squad, a Bolshevik’s officer recognized and released him. A similar story happened to the famous Alexander Alekhine who was awaiting his fate in a death cell in Odessa for alleged spying, when the Commissars’ Council received a petition from his fans, and set him free. The Commissars made the right decision: in 1927, Alekhine became the fourth World Chess Champion by defeating Casablanca. By that time, the socialist state counted 140,000 registered chess players. When the Fédération Internationale des Échecs – World Chess Federation (FIDE) created the Grandmaster title in in 1950, 11 of the 27 first grandmasters hailed from the Soviet Union.

The 1980s brought the world the unforgettable battles of Karpov-Kasparov. 

Garry Kasparov and Levy's team

Anatoliy Karpov learned to play chess at the age of four and became a Soviet National Master at fifteen - the youngest in history. Garry Kasparov, a half Jewish, half Armenian Soviet prodigy, began studying chess seriously after he nonchalantly proposed a solution to a chess problem debated by his parents. Karpov had been enjoying his ten-year world championship tenure when Kasparov challenged the title in 1984. A long and hard battle, it became the one and only world match to be abandoned without result because neither player could score enough points for a win. A year later, using a Sicilian defense while playing black in the 24th game, Kasparov became the youngest world champion at age 22. 

The laurels of the world championship come hard, but as a favorite hobby, chess can be motivating and addictive, although no victories come easy. Chess skills take a lot of studying and patience– books, lessons, private coaching. Most importantly, it takes perseverance. 

At age 10, Levy won the State Chess Championship and two years later became the second place player in the country for his age group. Alas, the triumph didn’t last long – his teenage angsts kicked in and he dropped out of the race. Three years later, on a whim, he decided it was time to come back, and within six months, earned the title of the National Master. 

Will I ever see his name in the list of World Champions contestants? I think he has the talent. I don’t know if he’s got the necessary level of obsession. Neither do I think that a fanatical fixation on 64 squares and 32 black and white pieces is healthy either. But I hope he will make an International Master one day. It would be cool to have one in the family.
Kasparov's chess books... autographed!!!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

It's Just Not Cricket*

(Photo: B. Sandman)
On April 2, a most spectacular event occurred: India won its first Cricket World Cup in 28 years. I know it was spectacular because even though I don’t follow much of the sport, a global cheer was heard from Indians around the world. It’s a surprise the Internet didn’t shut down with all the high-five-ing that occurred on every social media outlet the instant the winning wicket was won.

Which, of course, led to the most popular joke going viral that day: “good luck getting IT support on the phone.” Clearly, ethnic Indians everywhere were taking the day off to watch the match. And then the rest of the week to party.

But amidst all the jubilation, there was also this major feel-good moment, one I wanted to embrace but couldn’t quite wrap my head around. Indians everywhere felt united by this victory – we were all just one big, happy family. It sounded so positive, so right, but felt so … off. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, nor did I really give it much thought. (I mean, it was only cricket, right?)

Until I read this article.  

Novelist Manu Joseph crystallized my sentiments perfectly when he called this group hug “a deceptive sense of wellbeing.” In India alone, Joseph so aptly explains, daily life “is a fierce contest between the affluent and the educated on the one side, and the brooding impoverished on the other. The pursuit of India’s elite is to protect themselves from India – from its crowds, dust, heat, poverty, politics, governance and everything else that is in plain sight. To achieve this, they embed themselves in their private islands that the forces and the odors of the republic cannot easily penetrate.”

And, he says, “The islands that protect Indians from India are simple and material: A luxurious car with an unspeaking driver who works for 12 hours every day at less than $200 a month, or at least an S.U.V. with strong metal fenders that can absorb routine minor accidents. A house in a beautiful residential community that the Other Indians can enter only as maids and drivers. Membership in an exclusive club. Essentially a life in a bubble…”

Joseph’s theory brings to mind the title of an old book, A Million Mutinies Now, in which Nobel-winning author V.S. Naipaul calls post-colonial India “a country of a million little mutinies.” In the 20 years since he wrote this travelogue, the disparities have only widened – maybe it’s a billion little mutinies now.

Our group hug wasn’t even fleeting – it was just delusional.

Within a week of India’s World Cup victory, two of the country’s activists went on hunger fasts to force the government to introduce anti-corruption legislation. Though the divide between the haves and have-nots are appalling, and the nation’s bureaucracy and corruption staggering, these powerful stances reminded many people of Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance movement and aroused feelings of patriotism among even the most skeptical. Again, global cheers – way to go, men! Show them how it’s done.

Within days, the men called off their fasts when government officials agreed to form a committee aimed at studying the corruption committed by, er, government officials. Woohoo… we … gulp ... won.

Meanwhile, not far off in the Middle East, change has arrived sooner. The ongoing Arab Spring is far from over, but it prompted one observer to wonder if the “heady jasmine scent from North Africa” could “waft across the Arabian Sea to India.”

Soon, I’m thinking, very soon.

In the meantime, there you have it – everything I know about sports, in a nutshell.

* My thanks to Alli for this great headline. "It's just not cricket" is an Aussie term that means "having something that is unjust or just plain wrong done to someone or something. It comes from the game of cricket, which is regarded as a gentleman’s game, where fair play is paramount."

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Bend It Like Batistuta

Ahhh... Gabriel Batistuta. What more can one say?
Not long after arriving in South America, I discovered my passion for football. And before anyone starts sending hate mail, it is football, not soccer—at least by my definition. We can save the debate about what “real” football is for another post, but I believe this gentlemen, Gary Archer, seems to have it pretty well summed up here.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s travel back in time to my early days in Argentina. My ever-patient friends took me to cafes to watch games on the screen and educate me as to why they were well within their right to yell at the referee who couldn’t hear them. My buddies taught me how to appreciate the skills and intricacies of the game, and I quickly fell in love with the sport, but the part that intrigued me the most was the supporters. It never failed to amuse me when my normally quiet, agreeable friends transformed into raucous, one-eyed supporters the moment their chosen team took to the field. 

When a journalist friend offered to take me to a live match, I could hardly refuse. On match day, I practically super-glued myself to him, praying I wouldn’t get lost in the rowdy mob as we made our way from the train station to the stadium. At the gate, men, women, and children were patted down, lighters were confiscated and thrown into large plastic bins, and I eventually climbed the shaky wooden steps of the terrace to get a good view of the field. 

I’d never been to a sporting match where the crowds had to be separated by team. With Australian Rules Football, supporters mingle with each other during the game. There’s some good-natured ribbing, but rarely does it come to blows. When I went to my first Argentine football match I hadn’t been brainwashed into supporting any particular team (a totally different story now), so it was a tad difficult to decide which part of the stadium I should be in. Luckily, my friend made up my mind for me, and we took our place amongst the River Plate supporters. The Racing supporters on the opposite side of the field gave us the evil eye and showed us some interesting hand gestures.

Anticipation zapped through the air and the crowd grew louder the closer it came to kick-off. Above our heads, homemade signs fluttered in the breeze, smoke that was not from legal cigarettes floated through the air, and thousands of supporters stretched their vocal chords. Scattered throughout the terraces were signs that had names of different neighbourhoods in Buenos Aires - Palermo, Belgrano, Caballito - indicating where supporters from each barrio should congregate to cheer their team on. The way people greeted each other with hugs, backslaps, and a few choice words was like witnessing a high school reunion.

A few men, who had better balance than tightrope walkers, stood on the railings, faced the crowd and encouraged everyone to join in one of the endless chants from each team’s repertoire. When the mob looked like it was losing momentum, these self-proclaimed cheerleaders would point to those not doing their bit, and berate them into singing louder and jumping higher. 

River Plate
All this before the game had even started. 

Once the teams ran onto the field, the formalities took place, and the game commenced. It was mayhem from that moment on. Thousands of sweaty bodies jumped up and down, supporters broke out into some choice chants, and they spent most of the time telling the other team how useless they were and how they liked dating the mother’s of the opposition. That’s the G rated version, anyway. There’s no such thing as personal space, and no one cared, they were all in it together. 

If a player from the other team happened to take a tumble in front of the opposition supporters, the poor guy got pelted with foam cups, rolled-up newspapers, and fruit. The policemen that stood around the perimeter with shields and truncheons eyed off the crowd, but didn’t move a muscle. A few times, I caught policemen eyeing off the supporters with looks that seemed to say, “That’s the best you can do?”

To be honest, I don’t remember a great deal about the actual match. I know River Plate won, as my friend’s bear hug at the end of the game nearly resulted in me suffering a couple of cracked ribs. 

I came away from the match breathless, in a daze, and on a high I’d never experienced from watching a sport match before. To say I was hooked was an understatement.

When I moved to Cuzco in Peru, the apartment I lived in just happened to be around the corner from one of the national football teams. But that’s a whole other story for another time. 

My love of football has never died, and I am forever grateful to my friends for introducing me to this amazing game. The people’s passion, dedication, and willingness to bare their souls for the love of their team is something I’d never quite experienced before. Football brings people together, regardless of social status. Lifelong friendships are made, and for the couple of hours during the match, one’s problems fall by the wayside and it’s a moment in time to forget about the real world and form a united front.

Supporting a football team means one belongs.

And in case you’re ever in the neighbourhood and feel the urge to go to a River Plate match, here are some chants you can practice:

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Sport of Heroes

 We’re standing at the front of a crowded dizin restaurant in Tehran waiting to be seated. I’m looking forward to the food served here: dizin is a traditional one-pot stew of lamb and vegetables served with bread, pickles, and yogurt. But for the time being, I’m perusing a wall of photos depicting Iranian sports idols. From one grainy, black-and-white snapshot stares a face that could be the spitting image of my husband’s, except for the silly grin that is somehow all wrong.

“I didn’t know you were a famous athlete,” I kid my husband.

“That’s Takhti, the wrestler,” he replies with an air of long-suffering patience. “Everyone says I look like him.”

No kidding.

What fascinates me about Gholamreza Takhti, besides his uncanny resemblance to my husband, is the sport in which he excelled. Takhti was a Jahan Pahlavan, a master of the ancient Persian sport of varzesh-e pahlavani (also known as varzesh-e bastani), or pahlavani for short.

Often described as traditional Persian wrestling, pahlavani is actually a martial art that combines physical endurance and strength-building exercises with Sufi-based mysticism. The philosophy behind it is that physical strength (and hence masculinity, for this is an exclusively male domain) comes from spiritual and moral purity. The athletes (known as pahlavans) are supposed to enter the ring with only truth and honesty in their hearts and refrain from words and actions that would insult or humiliate their opponents. No wonder it’s called varzesh-e pahlavani, which translates as the “sport of heroes.”

Pahlavani is practiced in a zurkhaneh (house of strength), an octagonal structure with brick or mud walls, a round opening in the roof, and a sunken pit (gaud) in the center of the room. In traditional zurkhanehs the gaud floor is cement, but modern ones have more comfortable wooden surfaces. The area around the pit is divided into several sections for spectators, musicians, and the athletes themselves. A raised platform is reserved for the murshed, a person who recites poetry and beats a drum that provides the rhythm for the exercises.

Pahlavani practice involves a series of exercises performed to music and chanting, starting with acrobatics and juggling by a pishrav (novice). Athletes also swing huge, heavy clubs (mil), lift weights (some in the shape of iron bows), and perform push-ups and calisthenics. In one exercise, the men spin in circles and leap to the rhythm of the drum, an action that reminds me of Turkey’s whirling dervishes. The ritual ends with a wrestling match between two master pahlavans, one of whom is the zurkhaneh’s current champion and must defend his title against an opponent. The two men grasp each other tightly by the belt and try to knock the other off balance. The objective is to force the opponent’s shoulder to the floor. This form of wrestling is called koshti pahlevani (heroic wrestling).

The sport has its roots in pre-Islamic Persia and was banned soon after the Arab invasion that brought Islam to the country. The Arab invaders considered pahlavani clubs to be hotbeds of subversive activity. Pahlavani reached its peak of popularity the Qajar Dynasty (1785-1925), when Nasser-ed-Din Shah built a zurkhaneh in his palace and staged a big competition during the Persian New Year to select a national champion. Today, the sport is still going strong, with 450 zurkhanehs throughout Iran. In the Islamic Republic, there are even two schools of pahlavani: the traditionalists, who compete to the rhythm of poetry that praises the Prophet Mohammed and his family, and the nationalists, whose musical accompaniment retells the exploits of pre-Islamic kings and warriors.

I’ve never watched a real-live pahlavani competition, and it’s unlikely that I ever will in the Islamic Republic. Under current laws, women are banned from the zurkhaneh. Presumably the reasoning is that so much concentrated testosterone in one place would be too much for our weak sensibilities to take. However, zurkhaneh clubs have spring up all over the world in nearly every place where Iranian immigrants have put down roots, from Australia and Canada to Germany. Maybe there’s even is one in my California neighborhood. In the meantime, check out these video clips to get an idea of how this ancient, heroic sport is practiced.

A zurkhaneh in Esfahan

Athletes spinning

Friday, July 22, 2011

Off the Beaten Track: A Headful of Stories and a Bagful of Puppets

Our guest this week is Priscilla Howe, a professional storyteller who travels the world with a headful of tales and a bagful of puppets. She performs for listeners of all ages with (almost) true stories, world folktale, and stories from books, most served with a generous dollop of humor. Priscilla grew up in Rhode Island and Vermont and has lived in Belgium, Kansas, Bulgaria, New York, and Connecticut in her adult life. She now lives in Kansas City, Kansas. Find out more at and

Slow down, I remind myself. I look at the audience in front of me, this time third and fourth graders (eight- and nine-year-olds) in school uniforms. They’ve settled in, sitting in rows, wondering what I’m going to do. I pied-pipered them into the hall with my harmonica. I try to engage them as quickly as possible so we can get down to business.

That is, the business of stories. I’m a full-time storyteller, and this audience is in Peru, made up mostly of kids who are learning English as a second language. At this school, a few are native English speakers. I pull out my map of the United States. This is not just a geography lesson, but a way for the students to get used to my voice and accent before I begin the stories. I show them Kansas, where I live. “But I was born over here in Rhode Island. My mother lives in Maine. My brother lives in Oregon. My sister lives in Kansas. My sister lives in Wisconsin. My brother lives in Kansas.” By this time, the kids are laughing. “My brother lives in Vermont. And my sister lives in Massachusetts. I have three brothers and three sisters.

We’re almost ready for the stories. “I brought a friend with me, in my bag. Do you travel with your friends in a bag?” I reach in and pull out my old lady puppet, Trixie. “Una bruja!” I hear. I answer in English, “She does look like a witch, you’re right, but she’s not. She’s just old. She’s 111 years old.” Trixie introduces herself and she and I discuss which stories to tell. “Can we have a story about hair?” she asks. “Hair?!” It becomes clear that she wants either Rapunzel or Robert Munsch’s story, Stephanie’s Ponytail, (I have his permission to tell this). I sit Trixie on the chair gently, with her head in her lap. She may well fall asleep.

We’re off. I tell stories for about 45 minutes, with puppets and songs in between. My baby puppet is always a big hit—she could pop her pacifier out of her mouth twenty times and get a laugh each time. In this show, she only does it seven times. With middle school and high school students, I tell more sophisticated stories with fewer or no puppets. With this audience, I do a short Q and A at the end. They ask about stories, about puppets, about me.
Photo by Annie Tichenor

Here are some of the questions they ask:

Q. Where do you get your stories?
A. Many are folktales, which I find in books or I hear from other storytellers. Some are from books, and some are my own stories.

Q. How long have you been a storyteller?
A. I’ve been telling stories since 1988. I told stories in my job as a children’s librarian for five years and then in 1993, I left my job to become a full-time storyteller.

Q. What’s your favorite story?
A. That’s a good question. The big rule in storytelling is, only tell stories you love. So I love all my stories. My favorite is the one I’m telling at that moment. The favorite story of listeners is usually The Ghost with the One Black Eye.

Q. What countries have you visited to tell stories?
A. I’ve performed around the United States and in Belgium, Mexico, Bulgaria, Germany, Brazil, and Peru.

Q. Do you have any more puppets?
A. I have more at home. I have around 75 puppets in all. In my house I have a puppet room, where they all live.

Q. Do you like telling stories?
A. I love it. I’m lucky that I get to work at something I love.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Supriya's Summer Crime Spree

(Credit: Flappleton)
I can’t get enough of smart page turners that transport me to another time or place, in particular mystery novels that combine adventure, intrigue, international settings, history, cultural issues, and large social and political themes. Yes, I ask for a lot, don’t I? Fortunately, there are a lot of great books out there that fit the bill.

Taking a page from Alli’s post yesterday, I’m sharing some of my favorite novels as well as others whose books are at the top of my reading pile this summer.

I probably picked up my first Arnaldur Indridason book, The Draining Lake, just for the novelty of reading an Icelandic thriller. Now he’s one of my favorite authors and, it turns out, also one of Scandinavia’s – and that’s coming from a region that churns out a ton of stellar mysteries. (And yes, by the way, Iceland is considered part of Scandinavia. Who knew?) In this atmospheric police procedural, Indridason weaves back and forth between the Cold War era and the present, opening the door to everyday life in both Iceland and East Germany with extraordinary suspense. Now I’m on a quest to read all of his other novels.

Bestselling American author Lisa See is well known for her historical novels about women fighting adversity in China, and I’ll be honest – I haven’t read any of these popular novels yet, though one of them (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan) is about to hit the big screen. However, See’s Red Princess mystery trilogy would also make for great cinema. Dubbed as thrillers, the setting of this excellent cross-cultural series alternates between China and the United States and follows a female Chinese investigator and her ex-lover, a U.S. assistant district attorney from Los Angeles. You’ll take away all kinds of insights from See's complex stories and layers of plot and subplot in this series, from international politics to Chinese history and contemporary culture.

Hawaii-based author Rebecca Cantrell wrote A Trace of Smoke, one of the best crime novels of 2010. The first in a historical trilogy set in pre-World War II Berlin, it follows Hannah Vogel, a journalist trying to find out what happened to her murdered brother during Hitler’s rise to power. It’s a page-turner that both informs and surprises. The overall suspense combined with the rich details of the era in this series have put A Game of Lies, the third in Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel series, which came out just last week, at the top of my reading pile.

Also at the top of my reading pile is Irish author Tana French’s latest thriller installment, Faithful Place, the follow-up to her two blockbuster booksIn The Woods and The Likenessthat have swept up every mystery award possible and kept me up many a night. It’s no wonder, as French is a former actress. Each book takes the point of view of a different detective in a Dublin homicide squad, and French tells extremely nuanced, layered stories of characters so realistic and vividly drawn, you’ll miss them when you finish each book.

I’d heard of author Kwei Quartey, who last week released his second novel, Children of the Street – but I learned more about him from his recent guest post on Murder is Everywhere. He sets his mysteries in Ghana of all places. And when I say “of all places,” I mean I know precious little about Ghana. That’s about to change, as I’m off to read Quartey’s critically acclaimed first novel, Wife of the Gods.

Any other international mysteries that should be on my list? Do share. There’s nothing like a vacation within a vacation while lying on a beach and wondering where to next.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Alli’s Summer Beach Reads

Technically, I’m in the middle of winter here in Oz, and while the beaches are nice to visit, they’re a tad chilly to lay around in one’s togs* reading a book. But as majority rules on this blog, I’m going with my recommended beach reads (even though I’m secretly sitting on my sofa huddled under a pile of blankets).

Since I was a kid, the Egyptians, Romans, Incas, and Mayans have fascinated me, so when I came across fictional stories set in these time periods, I was hooked. So much so, I now write historical mysteries meshed with contemporary tales. I appreciate the amount of research it takes to write an ancient historical, and I am in awe of the skill some authors have in weaving those details without jolting the reader out of the story. Here are some of my favorite authors who put their own spin on ancient history:

Michelle Moran: I first discovered Michelle’s books when I picked up a copy of Nefertiti. What I love about Michelle’s writing is her ability to place the reader right in the moment, even though it takes place thousands of years ago. When I read Nefertiti, I truly believed I was standing beside Mutnodjmet, witnessing Egypt fall apart as her big sister Nefertiti fell under the spell of the deluded King Amunhotep. In The Heretic Queen, I felt the rejection Nefertari experienced when her once famous royal family was stricken from the history books. And in Cleopatra’s Daughter, my heart broke for ten-year-old Selene, daughter of Cleopatra, who saw her beloved Alexandria taken over by the Romans, and she and her twin brother were shipped to Rome to become slaves. And in Michelle’s latest book, Madame Tussaud, (not quite ancient, but still a historical) gives the reader an insight into the tumultuous life of the world’s most famous wax sculptor. For more about Michelle Moran’s books and some interesting links to her characters and what inspires her, click here.

Gary Corby: Not only is Gary Corby one of the most affable people on the planet, he writes a mean detective series set in ancient Greece. Gary’s knowledge of Grecian history is astounding. His passion for the time period is obvious, and his blog (here) is always a great source of informative entertainment. Gary’s first book, The Pericles Commission, starts off with “A dead man fell from the sky, landing at my feet with a thud”. The corpse is Ephialtes, a politician who had brought democracy to Greece only a few days earlier. When the politician, Pericles, learns of Ephialtes death, he commissions Nico to find the killer, and so starts the journey of this lovable, everyday guy who is drawn into the world of Grecian politics. Nico’s young brother is Socrates, who is quite the precocious chap, making this book even more endearing. Gary’s attention to detail is amazing, and the cast of characters is just wonderful. I’m very much looking forward to the new adventures of Nico in The Ionia Sanction, coming out in November this year. For those wanting to read more about Gary, please check out his Off The Beaten Track Post he wrote for us earlier this year. Blog post here.

Christina Phillips: Christina Phillips flawlessly combines ancient history with hot and steamy romance and boy, can she create conflict between the hero and heroine! Christina’s first novel, Forbidden, is the story of Carys, a Druid princess, and Maximus, a very hot Roman centurion. When Maximus discovers Carys’s heritage, it adds a spectacular twist that makes it impossible to put this book down. Christina’s second novel, Captive, is about a Druid priestess trained in the art of sensuality, but she takes a vow of celibacy to spite her goddess when the Romans invade. The problem is, she falls for her captor, putting her vows and sanity to the test. Oooh la la! Over 18’s only please! There are more books of Christina’s on the way and I can’t wait to get my hands on them! Christina did a post for our Off The Beaten Track earlier this year. Blog post here.

Jessica Andersen: Jessica has a wonderful ability to write extremely well in many genres. My personal favorite, though, is The Final Prophecy series. Although it isn’t set in ancient times, the stories are heavily influenced by Mayan mythology. According to the Mayans, the world will end in December 2012, and Jessica has used this theory in The Final Prophecy series. The Nightkeepers are modern magic weavers and they fight against evil demons and gods, doing their best to keep the world in one piece. But even the greatest warrior can’t fight 24/7, and there are welcome romantic distractions along the way. To increase their powers, the Nightkeepers need to pair up, and most times those matches are not made in heaven. Hearts are broken, evil sometimes wins, and Mayan myths are woven seamlessly into a fabulous, page-turning series. Jessica only has a few more books planned for the series, and I will be one of many who will shed more than one tear when the series finally ends. Here’s an interview I did with Jessica earlier this year. Interview here.

I’m always on the lookout for ancient historicals, be it a mystery, romance, epic or a combination. If you have any recommendations, I’d love to hear about them. And how about your summer? What are your reading plans?


Monday, July 18, 2011

The Magic of Realism

I read fiction for two main reasons. First, to dive headlong into someone else’s life and forget about my own for a few hours at a stretch. Secondly, to learn something new about this vastly fascinating world we live in. The latter reason is why I am drawn to books set in other countries and cultures. I’m a literary explorer at heart.

Recently, I read a book that satisfied on both fronts: Cry of the Peacock, by the Iranian-American author, Gina B. Nahai. Although a literary novel, this book has a plot as riveting as any suspense, combined with Nahai’s lyrical prose and memorable characters. It’s set in Juyy Bar, Esfahan’s Jewish ghetto, a community whose presence in the city stretches back 3,000 years. Against the backdrop of Iranian history, the novel chronicles the tragedies and triumphs of a single Jewish family across seven generations and over 200 years. The story weaves myths and legends into the lives of its characters and combines magical realism with actual historical events.

Although the Jewish characters at the heart of the story are all fictional, we also meet real historical figures, such as Nasser-ed-Din Shah, the Qajar king who ruled Persia for 50 years; Prime Minister Mossadeq, who wrested control of Iran’s oil industry from the British in the 1950s; and Ayatollah Khomeini, the architect of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The book is narrated as a series of linked stories featuring characters with such wondrous names as Esther the Soothsayer, Joseph the Winemaker, and Taraneh the Tulip. But the real star of the tale is Peacock, who at the age of nine marries Solomon the Man. Solomon is the only Jewish singer at the royal court of Esfahan’s governor (who also happens to be the son of the king, Nasser-ed-Din), and a favored toy boy of the aristocratic ladies. Peacock shocks the entire ghetto when she does the unthinkable and becomes the first woman in the community’s history to leave her husband.

Esfahan Synagogue
Photo by Hamed Saber
She defies her neighbors’ expectations again by not coming to a bad end for breaking the long-standing tradition of wifely obedience. Instead of dying of shame, the now-young mother moves to Tehran with her two daughters and becomes a jewelry peddler, selling gold and gemstones to the city’s wealthiest and most powerful citizens.

Although Nahai vividly describes a world of suffering, tormenting her characters with plagues, poverty, and indignities—Jews were not allowed to leave the ghetto during rainstorms for fear that their impurity would wash off and contaminate Muslim souls—the story is ultimately a tale of hope. Peacock lives to the ripe old age of 116, and she never loses her faith that hard times are transitory. Perhaps when you live that long, it’s easier to see the big picture and tell yourself, “this too shall pass.”

The use of magical realism lends the novel a mythical quality, and yet Nahai has said that she based the stories on the lives of real people whose personal accounts she’s collected over the years. And the appearance of historical figures, combined with actual events and specific dates, ground the story in reality.

This contrast makes the tale a quintessentially Iranian one, from a culture where symbolism is everywhere and an ability to read between the lines is a useful skill in everyday conversation.

With its vivid imagery and emotional depth, Cry of the Peacock is a story that’s stayed with me long after I turned the last page.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Off The Beaten Track: An Eco-Holiday in Fairytale Romania

The Maramures Mountains (Inner Eastern Carpathians)
in northern Romania (Photo by Joadl)
Here’s a suggestion for this summer’s vacation: a stay at an eco-friendly guest house set in the fairytale lands of Romania.

Fresh air, a friendly boarding house, hospitable people, meals cooked with vegetables from their hosts’ own gardens, and lots of hiking. That’s how a typical day looks for tourists who choose an eco-boarding house (guest house) hidden in the small mountain villages. The number of such destinations is growing each year, as more and more people turn to environmentally friendly lifestyles and want to enjoy them even on vacation.

Romania is a land of paradoxes. Although it has tremendous tourist potential, the number of tourists who come here falls each year. Many are discouraged by the lack of infrastructure, inadequate housing conditions, or high charges. In some cases, they’re right, but we compensate with breathtaking landscapes and welcoming people.

A shepherd in the Făgăraş Mountains (Photo by friend of Darwinek)
The mountain villages, for example, are a perfect getaway destination. In some boarding houses in the countryside, you can enjoy real farm life, surrounded by Carpathian Shepard dogs, rabbits, peacocks, and quails. And you can taste the goodies cooked from the freshest ingredients.

Rolling hill leading into Piatra Craiului National Park
(Photo by Horla Varlan)
In Piatra Craiului National Park, in the picturesque village of Magura (170 km from Bucharest), you can experience life in the countryside. During your stay, you are invited to assist in household, daily chores. You can milk the cow, collect the eggs from the nest, or dig around the vegetable garden. If you would like to see the harvest of this year, you will be invited into the pantry usually full of vegetables, zacusca (a Romanian vegetable spread), tomato sauce bottles, and jars filled with fruit jam.

If you haven’t yet visited the magical realms of Bucovina, you’re missing out. It’s 450 km from Bucharest to village Vama, in the Suceava County, roughly 5-8 hours on the road, depending on your means of transportation (car or train). But it’s worth the effort! 

A panoramic view of Campulung Moldovenesc in Suceava County
Here, you will find green meadows and cheerful boarding houses. Carriage rides give you a tour of the hills. When you return from the carriage ride, you can sit in the yard, shaded by old linden trees, and taste an exceptional menu cooked by the farm’s hosts, who use old and unique recipes, flavors you will not forget. If you would like to learn the secrets of Romanian traditional courses during your stay, you can take cooking lessons. Everything you will use in the kitchen is 100 percent natural, purchased from the most trusted sources: the local gardens.
If you’re a gourmand, and you would like a taste of the best Romania has to offer, you should visit Turda (30 km away from Cluj-Napoca, a popular hotspot in Transylvania, and 350 km away from Bucharest) and surroundings, in the heart of Transylvania.

Look for “Turda steak” on local menus. It’s a course that became popular in the 1930s. It is cooked from pork soaked in milk until it becomes tender, seasoned with coarse salt from the nearby salt mine, then roasted in lard. It’s typically served with a choice of pickled cucumbers or sauerkraut, and best enjoyed with a bottle of Chardonnay. All restaurants in Turda serve this steak, but the locals would recommend you try the best at the Printul Vanator Restaurant (The Hunter Prince Restaurant), where you can also enjoy your meal in a lovely, rustic setting. For dessert, try the honey and cinnamon gingerbread, a century-old recipe. Gingerbread in Turda is famous for its presentation, because it is cut in a bone shape. Among other regional goodies are the palinka (booze made from plums) and the red onions from Aries, which you can buy in long ropes from the locals.

Children choosing from a bounty of healthy choices.
(Photo by the Turda Slow Food Association)
Those interested in healthy food will find a heaven of organic food in the Turda region. The Turda Slow Food Association supports the promotion of these foods: delicious, organic, and locally grown ingredients for a healthy meal. The Association organizes activities to which both local producers and tourists are invited.

"You could go to Turda during the Children’s Cooking Festival, which will be held for the first time this year in August, and you will be able to admire the little chefs making fun cooking demonstrations," explains Marta Pozsonyi, the president of Slow Food Turda. You can even visit the school gardens where you will find organic products, grown and tended by pupils from schools in the region, who thus learn to choose natural foods.

Locals from Aries braiding ropes of onions after harvest
 (Photo by Turda Slow Food Association)
Those who want to sample local delicacies should visit Romanian villages and mountain roads. Slow Food Turda recommends a visit to the local cheese makers, who welcome tourists into their sheepfolds to see sheep-milking demonstrations and taste different types of cheese.

Kirchenburg in Viscri (Photo by Wissenskanon)
If none of these arguments have persuaded you so far, the next one might make you choose Transylvania as a holiday destination. Prince Charles fell in love with these lands, and he considers this area as the greatest treasure of Romania. He liked Transylvania so much, that after spending several vacations here, he bought two holiday homes. One is in Viscri, not far away from the medieval town of Sighisoara (280 km away from Bucharest). It is a small and ordinary house. In fact, Prince Charles invested large sums of money in renovating several houses in the village, homes open to tourists. Since his first visit in Romania, in 1993, the British royal heir visits at least once a year and enjoys life in the Romanian countryside. During his last visit, in May 2011, he learned to mow the lawn, and he wanted to take a scythe back home with him.