You are currently browsing the monthly archive for February 2013.

I have been reading up a storm, which sort of matches the weather. Today we had sun, hail, sun, deep dark clouds, and so much more. I love these kinds of days, but I do think we’re heading into an early spring. We really didn’t have much of a winter either. Sigh. I love winter.

But you don’t care about my thoughts on the weather. How boring! You want to know, what have I been reading? What am I reading? And what am I going to read? (3 uses of the continuous tense, notice, and yes my ESL classes are going swimmingly)


Proof of Guilt: The latest in Charles Todd’s series on Detective Ian Rutledge. Very enjoyable classic murder mystery, with lots of clues and red herrings and a fine, crisp conclusion.

This is How I Save My Life: A young normally-active woman is stricken with Lyme’s disease and goes to India to receive stem cell treatment. She’s all better now but it’s not because of that–no, she healed herself through positive thinking. My takeaway from this book: if you’re sick Amy believes it’s your own fault. Yeah. Not a big fan of karma personally–I think it’s a very cruel philosophy. Still, I enjoyed her descriptions of India, and would have liked to learn more about her treatment.

All That I Am: Really good, really well-written. Concerns early resistance to Hitler, i.e. in the years leading up to the second World War. Funder has taken real people and real events and given us a fictionalized version that rings true.

Sparkly Green Earrings: written by Melanie from Big Mama. If you read her blog, you know her style, and this book echoes that. Very approachable. A memoir of the segment of her life from when she and her husband decided to try for a baby to now, when their daughter Caroline is about 8.

Where the Light Falls: I enjoyed this book, although it could use some tighter editing. Young American woman goes to Paris in the 1880s. Lots of period details and interesting people.

Untimed: A YA (definitely for older teens though) sci-fi book about time travelers, who run in families. The boys can only go backwards and the girls can only go forwards. Charlie accidentally changes history and has to figure out how to get things back to the normal he knew. Can he succeed? I think the giveaway is still open if you’re interested; click the link.

The Bracelet: I have mixed feelings on this. It’s actually really good and I totally enjoyed it, but there are some definite holes in the plot and I would feel better if I could discuss them with someone. So go read it; you’ll enjoy it. The holes aren’t huge, just that they keep it from being excellent. Nurse Abby Monroe goes to Pakistan (she’s super naive about world events, which is one of the holes) and learns about human trafficking. The best part are the women’s stories; they ring true. They are horrible, and the novel does a good job of shining a light on this. Really a good book in many ways, and the story line keeps moving. The author spent time working as a nurse in Afghanistan and you can tell from her descriptions of people and places.

There Was an Old Woman: A Novel of Suspense: I liked this one. It concerns a plot to take over the homes of elderly single women, playing off the fact that people won’t believe them and think they’re confused.

The Life & Times of “Call the Midwife”:  You may remember (oh come on, you do not) me RAVING about a book called Shadows of the Workhouse, which was hands-down one of the top 3 books I read last year. It’s non-fiction but reads like fiction, written by a woman who worked as a midwife in the London slums in the 1950s. I didn’t even know they’d made a TV series of it. This book follows the first 2 seasons of the TV series and I absolutely loved it. I missed Season 1 in the US, but Season 2 starts this spring and I’m planning to watch.


Canada: The latest by Richard Ford. So far, really good. Del is 15 and looking forward to starting high school but his father is getting involved in shady business. I already know from the back cover that his father and mother will rob a bank and go to jail and Del will go to Canada.

Not Less Than Everything: Catholic Writers on Heroes of Conscience, from Joan of Arc to Oscar Romero: I’m not Catholic, but some very good writers are, and I love reading about heroes of conscience. This is a collection of essays, various people writing about others who inspire them. Some are great; some are so-so.


The End of the Point: story of a family through the last-half of the 20th century. Looks better than I just made it sound. It actually looks really good.

Operation Oleander: YA novel. A teenaged girl raises money for a girls’ orphanage in Afghanistan, where her father is deployed. But then the Taliban targets it.

A few weeks ago, I was making lunch. I took up a roma tomato to slice, and noticed it had a bad spot at one end. I cut off about a third, cut 3 or 4 slices, and had an equal amount left. I tossed the bad bit in the trash and then realized I’d accidentally thrown the good bit away. It was sitting right on top of the trash can, atop a pile of perfectly clean papers that Donn had cleaned out of his car and should have put in the recycling. So I rescued it. I heard a sort of strangled sound and looked up to see two of Elliot’s friends, two teenaged boys, staring at me in abject horror. “You just took food out of the trash can?” one of them almost whispered.

I was gentle. I didn’t mock them (to their faces). I didn’t tell them about people who dumpster dive. Instead, I washed off the offending bit, just to appease them, although they were definitely unappeased, even when I ate it myself so they wouldn’t have to worry about getting it served to them. I explained, but to no avail. Apparently if their mothers threw away a perfectly good third of a tomato by mistake, there it would lie, undisturbed, even if it landed in a nest of clean receipts from gas stations.

The other day, I had to buy a new mop. I was looking at those Swisher mops and wondering if they were any good. I asked the girl working at Target. “Yeah it works great. I used to have one, but I didn’t like it,” she told me. When I asked why, she said, “After you mop the floor, you have to take off the towel, and you have to touch it, and it’s really gross.”

I know you’re thinking, but these are young people, who have never raised children, changed diapers, dealt with toddlers who have no concept of trying to make it to the bathroom before anything unfortunate happens. And you are right. But I think this is symptomatic of something larger. I wrote once, years ago now, about a time I saw a mother who wouldn’t let her daughter drink from a drinking fountain because it was “dirty.” Even before I lived overseas I wasn’t too uptight, but living in the desert definitely stretched me, to where I am more worried about wasting food than I am about possible germs that might be on perfectly clean paper. Years of drinking three rounds of sweet mint tea from tiny glasses that aren’t washed between rounds, only rinsed, or shaking hands with children who live in tents with no running water and very little daily hygiene, changes your perspective. The concept of double-dipping just isn’t going to gross out the person who’s bought fly-covered meat with the hoof still attached from an outdoor vendor who’s sitting in the baking sun, or taken a large bite out of a sandwich only to find half a locust baked into it. (I’m still grossed out by goat intestines though, just so you know)

That said, there are times when even I want to whisper in a strangled voice, “Please tell me you didn’t just do that.” There was the time I watched L dressing a salad. She sprinkled on lemon juice and olive oil and salt, then plunged her unwashed hands in to mix it. (No problems) Then she lifted out a strip of lettuce, touched it to her tongue, nodded, and dropped it back in the bowl.

Two weeks ago, I was visiting L and her 2 year-old niece, an adorable child with enormous eyes and a head of tangled curls. The child had a cold, complete with husky voice and nasty cough. We were sitting in L’s room, eating Doritos from the enormous stack she keeps underneath her bed, when the toddler pointed to a bright shiny pink lip gloss. “She loves it,” explained L, applying it to the child’s lips. The child then pointed at me, and before I could stop her, L had put the same lip gloss on me. I didn’t say anything, but in my head I was staring at her in abject horror. I knew I was going down, and sure enough a few days later I woke up croaky myself. That was also the visit where the child wanted gum so L just gave her half of what she already had in her mouth. Ew.

But I sometimes have a hard time straddling the two worlds. It’s not uncommon for my Iraqi friends to eat from a serving bowl with the same spoon they are using for their own private plates. I don’t care–I’ve had years of training–but the scary thing is that I may be getting too relaxed. Surely it’s only a matter of time before I move from grossing out the sensitive teens to grossing out my friends, to where I forget and plunge my own personal spoon into the guacamole, and double and triple dip my chips.


(I made a Mauritanian dish the other night and we all ate on the floor, with our hands, for old times’ sake)

So where do you fall on the germaphobe scale? Do you freak out if other people double-dip, or take a drink from your glass? Or does it require something more like sharing lip gloss with a 2 year old to bother you? Have I ever grossed you out?

Before we moved to Mauritania, I read everything I could lay my hands on that had been written about the desert country about to become my new home. Perhaps you will not be surprised to know that wasn’t much. I could not find a book, in English, with Mauritania as its subject. The best I could do were books written by people who had traveled through the Sahara, who had visited Algeria and Tunisia and Egypt and Mali and Morocco and Mauritania.

In general, these travelers loved Algeria and Tunisia and Egypt and Mali and Morocco, but they didn’t love Mauritania. They found it hot and dusty and dirty, and they found the people isolated, suspicious, even hostile. I think what really determined their reaction was the city of Nouakchott which, I must admit, can be isolated, suspicious and even hostile, not to mention hot, dusty and dirty.

The one writer I found who actually seemed to like the country, to accept it as he found it and respond to the people with equanimity, was Quentin Crewe who wrote In Search of the Sahara. A British journalist with MS, confined to a wheelchair, he gathered a group and headed through the desert in the mid-80s in two Unimogs. Crewe is a great writer, and I appreciate that he includes a lot of the history of Europeans in the Sahara, although I skimmed those parts because what I really wanted to learn about was the Sahara in the mid-80s.

He writes of Oulata (where we visited ourselves, one Spring Break, and that was the trip where we nicknamed our guide Uncle Pervie cuz he wouldn’t stop holding Ilsa’s hand even when we told him not to, and that was also the trip where we saw the sleeping crocodile less than 10 feet from Elliot who was shouting, “LOOK!” It was a great trip.). He comes through Nouakchott and they head up the beach to Nouadhibou, because of course the road between Mauritania’s two main cities was another 20 years away from completion. He sees the great fishing grounds before they were depleted, and sees the fishermen and the dolphins working together to allow both man and dolphin to catch and eat fish. He recognizes heat and dust and dirt and suspicion, but he transcends it because he begins with a different sort of attitude. And, heading north of Nouadhibou towards the Moroccan border, their Unimog hits a landmine and blows up! Everyone survives, but they have to fly out. I’ve heard there are still land mines along that border, and when Donn went there I warned him not to wander off. He gave me a look. In general, it’s best not to wander along borders away from official crossings but in full view of them.

Last month, Donn’s sister and her husband came to see us (YAAY!) and of course we went to Powells. We always go to Powells. Most of our friends are avid readers, and even if they’re not, it’s a Portland landmark. I am always up for a trip to Powells, even if the urgency has been lost since I started this gig with 5 Minutes for Books, which guarantees that I always have a guilt-inducing stack I’m working my way through. (I am greedy when it comes to free books.)

I was wandering through the travel section, and I saw a copy of In Search of the Sahara! It’s been out of print for years, and I’d forgotten about it. Only $6! I picked it up and it smelled musty and damp and loved , that smell of old books that seems to be dying out in this brave new world where Powells only buys your newest, most pristine books, and even I got a Kindle at Christmas. Of course I bought the book, and I’ve been enjoying it. It’s really fun to reread his descriptions all these years later (I initially got the book from the library in the late 90s) and after visiting the places described.

On that visit, I also saw copies of all the books I own on the Sahara (Sahara Unveiled,  William Langewiesche’s similar trip from Algeria down across Mali and Mauritania; his account is so depressing that it scared me to death about moving there; and Mali Blues, in which the rather clueless Lieve Joris travels from Dakar, Senegal, along the bottom of Mauritania to Mali, where she interviews musicians. In one of my favorite examples of her obtuseness, she is visiting a French friend in Senegal and sees his child leave her clothes on the floor, and judges, because the child obviously only does that because she has a maid, thereby revealing herself as both childless and unmarried.) It was a little weird, like someone else had collected the same books and decided to get rid of them.

I was at Powells just before Christmas and I picked up an atlas put out by the Onion, flipped it open at random, and started that choked-down quiet giggle one gets in bookstores, shaking with laughter and blocking the aisle. It was so funny! I bought it for Donn and we’ve had lots of fun going through it. My favorite page is Sudan–slogan “All Better Now, Thanks to You,” which goes on to claim that the government, on hearing of a woman in Iowa wearing a “Save Darfur” t-shirt, was overcome with shame and changed their ways. They present Malaysia as a place for jihadists to vacation, relax, loosen their suicide belts.

But they go too far. I understand–how funny can one be about places like the Democratic Republic of Congo? Still, there’s a kind of anger that comes through, a slamming of anything that is not how the editors think the world should be, which is great if you happen to agree with them, and belittling if you don’t. That may be okay for a satirical atlas, but it’s a poor attitude for a traveler.

February 2013

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