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Month: March, 2016

Book List 60-80

I’ve underlined the books that I think you should DEFINITELY READ. I’ve put an asterisk by the ones I wouldn’t spend time on. The rest are somewhere in-between. If you have an e-reader, can I suggest jumping on your FREE PUBLIC LIBRARY’s e-books? I’ve been able to read a lot of current books on my kindle lately thanks to the support of the American taxpayer and our great public library system.

  • The Wind-up Bird Chronicle,**** Haruki Mrakami
    • I heard a lot of wonderful things about this book, but honestly I was bored for most of it. It was too timid, and there wasn’t enough action for me. It was an interesting look into Japan, however.
  • Beloved, Toni Morrison
    • Wonderfully written and thought-provoking. Magical and scary. Read it.
  • All the Light we Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
    • Full of sensory details that will make you feel like you are fully participating in the book. I’ve never read something about a blind character that was so well written.
  • Ordinary Light, Tracy Smith
    • I didn’t really see what was spectacular about this book. It has gained a lot of attention and accolades, but to me it read like a kind of boring account of growing up—no earth-shattering insights.
  • Neuromancer, William Gibson
    • I liked this book because it really let you build your own world in your head, not giving too many details. While at times this could also be a bit annoying, I like books that give you a structure and let you fill in the rest.
  • The Peach Keeper, Sarah Addison Allen
    • Easy, cheesy read. If you’re looking for something quick and fun, go for it, but it isn’t anything special.
  • Gulag, Anne Applebaum
    • Explores the system of concentration camps that I think most of us know very little about. A depressing book, but I think an important one.
  • Refund, Karen Bender
    • A fairly non-memorable collection of short stories, although there were a couple of characters that made an impression. Overall, I’d say it isn’t a waste of time, but also not a priority.
  • The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo
    • There has been a lot of chatter around this book, and I understand why. The book concisely lays out a plan for tidying that will (supposedly) last forever because the upkeep will be intuitive. Basically you just have to get rid of all of the possessions that you don’t feel “that connection” with. Sounds easier said than done, but you feel empowered at the end of the book.
  • A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara
    • A beautiful, sad book about friendships and resilience and breaking and being picked up again. I can’t recommend it enough.
  • Hustling is not Stealing, John Chernoff
    • Extremely interesting true story of a Ghanaian bar girl (she is effectively a high-class escort/prostitute.) Because there are bar girls (high class and not) all over Benin, it was an extremely interesting book. It is written in her words and dialect so that takes a little bit of time to get used to. Highly suggested.
  • Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots,**** Jessica Soffer
    • This was a highly-dramatic young adult novel that I didn’t realize was a young adult novel when I started reading it. Perhaps I came in with the wrong attitude, but I needed it to be a little more subtle to really enjoy it.
  • The Tsar of Love and Techno, Anthony Marra
    • A delightful collection of short stories set in Russia. Quirky and fun, I highly suggest this book. Ties into the previously mentioned book, Gulag.
  • Fates and Furies, Lauren Groff
    • Perhaps if I had been married I would have liked this book more. It examines a marriage in exquisite detail, but I didn’t love it. I got frustrated by the characters at points. That said, this is a well-written book overall.
  • Dream Land, Sam Quinones
    • Extremely interesting look at the opiate epidemic in America. Sam Quinones has laid out the history of opiates in America and how several factors came together to form the explosion of heroin and pain pill use that we have seen in the recent past. I highly suggest reading this book because almost everyone has known someone who has been hooked on opiates.
  • The Turner House, Angela Flourno
    • A very good book about family and home. With just a touch of the metaphysical woven into the story, and a deep look at Detroit after the housing bust, I think you’ll find this a beautiful, poignant read.
  • A Strangeness in My Mind, Orhan Pamuk
    • Sometimes I know a book is good, but I just don’t enjoy it that much. This is one of those books. I liked that it was set in Turkey and that it talked a lot about street vendors (because there are so many street vendors here in Benin.) I think a chunk of pages could have been cut to make the story move a little bit faster.
  • The People in Trees, Hanya Yanagihara
    • This was a little bit of a letdown because I read this after I read A Little Life by the same author. This was not a bad book, but it didn’t hold a candle to A Little Life.
  • Spoiled Brats, **** Simon Rich
    • The author in this book sounds like a spoiled brat. The stories are thinly veiled complaints about millennials. There’s a way to critique and make really good points about the culture of the moment, but he clobbers it over the head. Don’t waste your time.
  • The Wives of Los Alamos, **** Tarashea Nesbit
    • I was really excited about this book. It got glowing reviews and had interesting subject matter. But I was disappointed. The whole book was written in a collective voice, which was grating. I thought the introduction was going to be written that way and then someone’s voice (one particular woman? A narrator?) would pick up the story. Instead, the whole book is told by all of the wives of Los Alamos, and it was extremely annoying and also prevented character development.

Take me Home

I got to the airport in Benin, where I pulled my rolling suitcase through the dust, coating it more thoroughly than it already was, and making it extremely easy to pick out at baggage claim later. The woman at the ticket counter was nice, I was feeling giddy. And then I got to security where I had a fight with the security guard about whether or not it was against the rules for me to bring an empty water bottle in my carry-on. Him: “It is not allowed.” Me: “It is allowed.” Him: “It is not allowed and why would you want to bring an empty water bottle anyway? It is useless. I will throw it away.” Me: “You will not throw it away and you may not understand the pain of paying 3 euro for a water bottle at the Brussels airport, but it is not something I am interested in experiencing today. Please let me speak to your supervisor.” Him: “I guess it is allowed.” Success! (This process was repeated again at the inefficient second security screening before I got on the shuttle to board the airplane. I exited the country with my empty water bottle and paid zero euros for water in Brussles.)

On the plane, I felt that I was entitled to my own cultural norms. Don’t ask me why, but I always assume that once on an airplane, we will be following either European or American norms, especially when on an airline based in one of those places. Imagine my chagrin when I found that I was seated next to a Beninese man in a suit made exclusively of burgundy velvet. This suit signaled to me that my seat-mate would not be following my wished-for Western cultural norms. I was not wrong. This man greeted me kindly and then proceeded to elbow me in the ribs and try to move my feet over with his spindly leg. Although he feigned sleep, after about 20 minutes of this, I had had enough. “Excuse me, sir, there is a line between our seats, which you can see easily by following the trajectory of this armrest. Please do not cross this line. It is not appropriate.” IT WORKED! Well, for the most part. He jabbed me in an exploratory way a couple of times (Surely, she wasn’t serious? I’m obviously older and more important than her so I should get more seat space!) but each time I just looked slowly at him and then at the armrest and he would move back.

Then I got to Brussels. I found a couch, I covered my head with my scarf, and I slept for four blissful hours. Ah, I thought, now I am home free. I boarded my new plane, the one carrying me into the arms of America. Imagine the sinking feeling I experienced when I saw that my row consisted of one obese American man and one huge African man, whose combined bulk was taking up at least half of my seat. GAAAA I thought.

The man sitting next to me greeted me and said that he was a pastor coming from the DRC, where was I coming from? Benin, I said. “AHA! And what church do you go to there?” he asked with an enthusiasm that was really excessive considering how much travel we had both already been through and how much lay ahead of us. “I do not go to a church there.” I said. “Oh! You need a church!” “Well, I haven’t found one that I like and I’m doing ok without one.” “Oh! But you need a church!” “Well, you are a pastor. Thinking people need a church is an occupational hazard for you.” “What is an occupational hazard?” “Well, it means that because of the work you do, you are predisposed to think that people need churches.” “Being a pastor has nothing to do with it!” “Ok.” “Well, you do not go to church, but tell me, DO YOU BELIEVE IN JESUS CHRIST AS YOUR LORD AND SAVIOR?”

At this point, I had to make a decision. I was going to have to sit next to this man, literally pressed up against him, for the next eight hours. What would be the best way to react, where he would stop talking to me? I thought for a moment, and settled. “NO.” I said, icily, staring him down. After holding the stare for a couple of seconds, I broke eye contact and wouldn’t look back at him. I was nervous. Would it work?

“You’re a pastor? I’m a pastor too!” Said the  American sitting on the other side of the  pastor.

Well, there is a God. Because neither of them interrupted my alternate dozing/watching really terrible romantic comedies for the next eight hours.

Balls and Balls

A couple of months ago, I participated in two very different examples of events that exemplify a lot about the cultures I am living in at the moment. A world-cup qualifier soccer game between Burkina Faso and Benin and a Marine Ball at the embassy.


Going to a soccer game in a place that takes soccer very seriously is always a bit stressful. Will I get crushed in the crowd? Pickpocketed? Have to avoid over-enthusiastic fans expressing their feelings in non-positive ways? I once read a book about mob mentality as illustrated by soccer fans in England and it made a lasting, terrifying impression on me.

All of this being said, I love to watch sports with enthusiastic fans, especially sports that are being played at an elite level. I’m partial to yelling at TVs to encourage or berate, even when I’m not emotionally invested in a game. If you know my Mom, you’ll understand this aspect of my personality a bit better.

When I found out that Benin and Burkina were playing a World Cup Qualifier minutes from my house and that I could attend for less than $5, I jumped at the opportunity. After slathering on sunscreen (the worst sunburn of my life happened at a soccer match in Ghana. This is a prime example of me taking the adage “learn from your mistakes” seriously), I set off for the Stadium of Friendship with a small group of friends. After expertly bargaining for tickets with a hawker, we walked into the stadium. I think I was one of four women in attendance who was not selling refreshments.

There was chest paint, there was chanting, there was passion. Benin seemed to be the lesser team, but they pulled ahead and won the game, to everyone’s intense joy. Riot police ringed the field, standing stoically and becoming progressively more damp as people launched plastic bags full of water down from the stands onto the track, singing Benin’s national anthem as they hurled their celebratory water bombs.

The Benin Squirrels won! (Although they lost soon after, unfortunately falling out of the running for the World Cup.) It was a wonderful day with no crowd violence (unless you count the water bombs, which I don’t.) And in case you are wondering, no, I have never seen a single squirrel in Benin.

The Ball

Every year there is a Marine Ball to celebrate the birthday of the Marine Corps anywhere there are Marines. (I think.) Benin just got its first Marines to protect our very fancy new American Embassy. This year in Benin there was actually just a “Cake Cutting Ceremony” and not a ball, but I think that is really a persnickety detail because it seemed plenty fancy to me and I danced a lot. Anyway, I do not own a ball gown and I love cake, so a cake cutting ceremony suited me fine.

Because I live in Cotonou I was invited to participate and be one of the faces of the Peace Corps present at the event. I tried to make myself look a little more presentable and less sweaty than usual, and set off. The event was the most elegant thing I’ve been to in a while. There were a lot of important people in attendance. The level of decorum was difficult to uphold when the DJ couldn’t start the national anthem and accidentally put on some serious dance tunes instead. For probably over a minute and a half, all of the marines and the Ambassador were standing there, in formation, trying to bring the flag in. The DJ fumbled and fumbled. I had a hard time not laughing because 1) of course this happened, even though we are technically on American soil, we are still in Benin, and 2) this mishap was followed by a ceremony where a marine very seriously cut a cake with a saber which was symbolically poignant, I’m sure, but also seemed comedic to me. Luckily, I avoided an embarrassing outbreak of giggles.

We recently got a new ambassador in Benin who I met at the Peace Corps office before the event. 100% recovered from my near-laughing fit, I went over and re-introduced myself. She, in turn, introduced me to a man who I’m pretty sure was the ambassador to Belgium. We were chatting and he looked at my leg, noticing my scar (the one I got from dramatically falling into a manhole.) He said “Is that a mosquito bite?”

No, I explained, I fell into a manhole. My scar is just a reminder that Cotonou can be treacherous. He then told a bilingual dad joke. A dad joke is, according to me, “A joke that is sometimes funny, but mostly corny, one that makes you want to say “Awwww DAD!” the sort which your father probably tells at the dinner table, especially if you have friends over.”

Some background information you need to understand this joke is that the word for hole in French is “trou,” pronounced “true.” So when I said “Cotonou is treacherous,” he said “It isn’t Cotonou, it is Coto-TROU!” Although this took a moment for me to get, due to its bilingual nature, I thought it was absolutely hilarious and dorky.

Later that evening I danced the twist with the two ambassadors. I respect ambassadors who do things like dance to the twist at official events, because I think that shows a level of levity that can be hard to maintain for people in high offices. Anyway, later in the evening, the Belgian Ambassador (WAS HE THE BELGIAN AMBASSADOR? I WILL NEVER KNOW!) brought over a good-looking young man (presumably also Belgian, although who’s to say?) The Ambassador said “I recently met this young woman and she is a good dancer. This man is also a good dancer!”

In this moment, which could have been the start of a whirlwind romance or at least a dance, I reverted to my Beninese instincts. The appropriate thing to do in this situation in Benin is to make a joke. So I said “AH, BON?! (a very Beninese way to say “Oh really?”) I won’t believe you can dance until I see it!” My accent and body language were extremely Beninese, which people here usually find charming.

Instead of finding me charming, the young, handsome Belgian looked at me in horror, turned around, and walked away. Safe to say he didn’t appreciate my Beninese French and mannerisms. Well, I didn’t appreciate his sense of humor. I couldn’t stop laughing.

That night I danced for about eight hours and paid for it with massive blisters on my feet. But it was worth it. I also got to eat a piece of real red velvet cake (cut by sabre) and it was delicious. And although I didn’t start an international love affair, I ended up with a good story. What more can you ask for?