Tongablog

Join our adventure in The Kingdom of Tonga

What we are reading

If you want to help us out, you could buy us a used book from our Amazon wish list.  The cheapest used copy is fine.  You can send it to us in Tonga, or to my parent’s house- which in turn they’ll mail to us. You can send international directly from Amazon, but it does take several weeks to arrive. Or you could just send us a book you think we’d enjoy! Once we have read it we’ll donate it to a library in Tonga! Here is a list of what we are reading at the moment. Please comment and tell us about what you are reading. Make suggestions!!

Karen’s Picks


harrietjohnson

4/14- I haven’t updated this section in a while, but trust me, I have been reading!! This next book is really quite close to me.  I worked as the author’s personal assistant during the time she wrote this book.  In fact, my name is mentioned in the Acknowledgments. I am ashamed to say that for some reason, I had postponed reading it.  Harriet McBryde Johnson was an American heroine, a fierce and devoted disability-rights attorney and activist, a proud Charlestonian, and a woman I greatly respected.  I regret that I did not spend more time with her while I had the opportunity.  I have a sense now that I could have learned so much more from her.  I really consider her first book and memoir, “Too Late to Die:  Nearly True Talkes From a Life Young”a must-read for anyone interested in human rights and social justice.  It is deeply entertaining and witty, all the while challenging stereotypes and misconceptions and examining the biases and battles of the disability-rights community.  Yet the right to live any and every life with dignity is not an issue that should be neatly packaged as a “disability-rights issue.”  I learned so much by reading this book and knowing Harriet.  Before reading it, I had not thought about the deeply insulting and negative images of the Jerry Lewis Telethon, nor had I educated myself about forced institutionalization, employment discrimination, or the sheer lack of enforcement of the American with Disabilities Act.  I am so thankful that her spirit lives on in her books. For more information about these issues, check out http://www.laurahershey.com/ and http://www.cripcommentary.com/.  And read the book!

“Johnson’s rich, descriptive writing, humor, and Southern cadence makes the book entertaining, thought provoking, and meaningful.” -The Post and Courier

“A wonderful mix: a keen mind, exuberance, activist politics, along with a special brand of Southern women’s wit.” -Adrienne Rich

1/6- rachelsholiday3

I NEVER read books like this.  Ever.  But I was on holiday in Fiji, and happened to run across the book at a hostel book exchange.  I was not expecting to absolutely LOVE IT!!  I now have a new opinion on the entire “chic lit” genre.  I once that it was silly, vacant, and mildly offensive.  But this book was incredibly moving.  Seriously, I laughed and cried. It is about the protagonist, Rachel Walsh, and her struggle with drug and alcohol addiction.  Despite the topic, many passages are laugh out loud hilarious.  It really is a fantastic read, and I liked it so much that I ordered two copies for friends.  The book is set in Dublin and both the author and main character are Irish, so I loved reading it with an Irish accent:)

12/18- When I last updated this column, I was reading “Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas” by Tom Robbins.  LOVED IT!!  I think of Robbins not so much as an author, but more as an entertainer and perhaps esoteric scholar.  As always, he is hilarious, bizarre, and thought-provoking.  His books make you feel like you just ate a little L.S.D., which is a great side effect of reading, if you ask me…

Now I’m on to something a bit more serious…  I just began “Tales from the Torrid Zone” by Alexander Frater.  Born in Vanuatu, Frater later travels as a journalist to 88 countries.  In his book, he delves into the history and politics of each  nation he visits.  I’m only 25 pages in, but am looking forward to reading about his journeys, ranging from Fiji to Laos, Mexico to Peru, Senegal to Uganda, Taiwan to Indonesia.  Frazer also apparently dines with the Queen of Tonga in a leper colony..

torridzone2

11/16- I finished reading Bill Bryon’s “In a Sunburned Country,” which I really enjoyed.  It was fun, witty, and incredibly well researched.  I think we will definitely revisit it when we are planning our trip to Australia, after Peace Corps.  He convinced me that we absolutely should visit Ayers Rock, yet I am now adamant that we will not be camping anywhere in Australia.  Did you know that the ten most deadly snakes in the world are all in Australia?!

I guess I was on a bit of a travelogue kick (perhaps island fever?!), so I then picked up J. Maarten Troost’s “Lost on Planet China.”  I LOVE this guy’s writing! For obvious reasons, we were first introduced to him from his two books about living in the South Pacific (Kiribati, Vanuatu, and Fiji.)    His writings are both hilarious and informative.  His third book is about his backpacking adventures throughout China.  I must say, his accounts of the pollution, overcrowding, and crime have me a little deterred about wanting to visit China.  Nevertheless, it is absolutely a recommended read!

planetchina

Like many hippie college students, I used to read a lot of Tom Robbins.  I actually even met the author at a book reading in Denver.  There is a great story behind it, where I asked him if he wanted to have a drink after the reading.  He apologetically replied that he had a red eye flight to catch in the wee hours of the morning.  Then he leaned over and gave me a big ‘old smooch!! It has been five or six years since I read one of his quirky novels, but I discovered a tattered paperback in the school library (of all places.)   The blurb from the back convinced me that it was a timely read:

“When the stock market crashes on the Thursday before Easter, you- an ambitious, although ineffectual and not entirely ethical young broker- are convinced you’re facing the Weekend from Hell.  Before the market reopens on Monday, you’re going to have to scramble and scheme to cover your butt, but there’s no way you can anticipate the baffling disappearance of a 300-pound psychic, the fall from grace of a born-again monkey, or the intrusion in your life of a tattooed stranger intent on blowing your mind and most of your fuses.  Over these fateful three days, you will be forced to confront everything from mysterious African rituals to legendary amphibians, from tarot-card bombshells to street violence, from you own sexuality to outer space.  This is, after all, a Tom Robbins novel.”

I’m a hundred pages in, and so glad to be revisiting my good friend Tom Robbins!

halfasleep

I have not updated this section in forever… I did however, finish “Anna Karenina.”  It definitely provided interesting insight into the glamorous, privileged world of Russian royalty, while highlighting economic class distinctions and gender roles.  But I have to say, it will probably be a while before I embark on another Tolstoy…

Since we took the plunge and purchased internet, I mostly read the following selections:  huffingtonpost.com, dailykos.com, feministing.com, and fivethirtyeight.com.  Ahhh, the joys of the blogosphere!  In an attempt to keep my sanity, I am also trying to balance my heavy doses of politics and current events with some light reading.  My grandmother sent me the lovely novel “Sullivan’s Island” by Dorothea Benton Frank.  Anyone from SC knows exactly what book I am talking about.  Honestly, I don’t think reading it would do a whole lot for people who aren’t lucky enough to have lived in the Charleston lowcountry.  But for me, reading it felt like a short vacation home.  I devoured each page, and daydreamed about sultry Southern nights, shopping on King Street, and drinking cold beer at low country oyster roasts.  Sometimes there is no place like home!  Thanks grandma for letting me take a short trip home, through the pages of this novel:)  If anyone else would like to send me any other Benton Frank novels, go right ahead!  Right now, I am reading Bill Bryson’s acclaimed Australia travelogue, “In a Sunburned Country.”  I love his quirky facts, his wit, and his conversational approach.  More than anything, it is making me want to travel to the Land Down Under!

I decided that Peace Corps was the perfect time to read some of the “great Russian novels.”  As of now, I am over 400 pages into Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina.”  I really am enjoying it, but it is a tedious read.  I am reading the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation, and the annotations are incredibly helpful.  I am amazed by Tolstoy’s ability to give an authentic voice to so many diverse characters…

“All the variety, all the charm, all the beauty of life are made up of light and shade.”- Tolstoy

The Hidden World of Islamic WomenInfidel

I recently finished two fantastic books that I highly recommend. “Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women” falls into the genre “Women’s Studies and Middle Eastern Studies.” I actually read this book a couple of years ago, but wanted to re-read it. I put it on my Amazon Wish List, (accessible from the blog—hint, hintJ) and Scot’s cousin Doug sent it to me here. Geraldine Brooks, a native of Sydney, Australia, is the author. She was the foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, and spent six years covering the Middle East. In this book, she details her extensive interviews and relationships with Muslim women. She discusses diverse issues- such as fundamentalism, polygamy, jihad, politics, female genital mutilation, and wearing the chador. The book was published in the late 1990s, but is incredibly relevant today. It was one of those books that I breezed through, but read it with a highlighter. I definitely recommend it, and am sure that I will revisit it again.

“There has been nothing finer on the subject from a Western observer. She looks at it from the heart, mixing historical perspective with piercingly observed journalism.” –Newsday

The second book was one of those reads that will permanently stick with me. I highly recommend “Infidel” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. This memoir is absolutely engrossing, compelling, and thought provoking. Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia, in the late 1960s. Her father was a prominent activist against Siad Barré’s dictatorship, thus forcing the family to seek refuge in Saudia Arabia and Kenya. In the book, she basically details her life story and her perspective on Islamic fundamentalism. Her life attests to the transformative power of change. Once a devout Muslim, Hirsi later defies the religion (and her clan) by refusing an arranged marriage. She escapes to Holland, and later becomes a member of the Dutch Parliament and an extremely outspoken activist for women’s rights. Through reading this women’s journey, it is impossible to not be moved by her strength and passion.

“Too potent a social critic to be tolerated any longer (in her home country)… an unflinching advocate of women’s rights and an unflinching critic of Islamic extremism.” – The New York Times

My friend Sarah sent me a novel entitled Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino.

It was on of those reads that is just impossible to put down. I have to be honest… It was quite disturbing, yet one of the more thought provoking books I’ve read in awhile. It was kind of a cross between Tokyo’s version of “Law and Order- SVU Unit” and a college course on international feminism. It delves into sexism, self-esteem, the glass ceiling, prostitution and violence against women amongst high achieving female students in Tokyo. It was an absolutely fascinating fictional portrayal I will never forget. But not for the light-hearted.

Most of you know that I am a life-long feminist. Working as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Tonga has really invigorated my passion for gender equity and justice. Gender-based oppression is incredibly evident in Tonga, and I’ve also really struggled with the manner in which Peace Corps “educates” on the subject. Lets just say that the Federal Government has some huge strides to make in terms of rape and sexual assault training for volunteers. Right now I am adamantly challenging the “blame the victim” mentality in which volunteers are indoctrinated.

I am a huge fan of Jessica Valenti’s blog (feministing.com), so I ordered her book off of amazon. I was already familiar with most of the issues she addresses, but I highly recommend the book. It is an excellent resource, and is just a lot of fun to read! I really admire her passion and persistence.

Elaine (my book goddess) sent me Barack Obama’s first book, “Dreams From My Father.” I absolutely inhaled it. He wrote the memoir in his early thirties, and I am not sure that at the time his Presidential ambitions had come to fruition. The memoir was raw and honest, eloquently written and deeply moving. I always knew that Senator Obama was Kenyan, and had grown up in Indonesia and Hawaii. I guess I just naturally assumed that his childhood was amongst the economically privileged of these places. Reading the book felt like having an intimate conversation with him. I have a better understanding of his humble background. After finishing it, I am absolutely ecstatic about the fact that he may be our next President. He is a man of much wisdom and compassion. He not only understands the dynamics of global poverty, but through his family– has experienced it in an intimate matter. For those of you who know me (and my passion for politics,) it is torture missing this election! I do wish I could be there… working on his campaign… I guess my internet endorsement and absentee ballot will have to suffice:)

I am probably one of the few people on earth that have not read Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner,” but I did finish “A Thousand Splendid Suns.” As expected, it was incredibly haunting and heart-wrenching. I devoured it. Another thanks to Elaine for sending it my way! Upon finishing it, I decided that I needed to read something a tad bit lighter. Buried away in the Peace Corps office, I uncovered a collection of short stories by Beth Lisick, entitled “Everybody Into the Pool: True Tales.” It fit the bill exactly. The stories had me absolutely cracking up laughing, and it has been a while since a book made me laugh outloud! The author is a few years older than myself, but grew up in the same suburb of California in which I was born. She writes about her childhood, her hedonistic college years, San Francisco’s music scene, bisexuality, and motherhood.

“The tales veer from razor sharp to hilarious, and it’s a voice–both offbeat and upbeat, wised-up yet curiously wholesome–that you’re going to want to hear a lot more of.”
– Entertainment Weekly

Edwidge Danticat has recently published a book entitled “Brother, I’m Dying.” If you are not familiar with her, she is a young Haitian-American writer and activist. This book details her life in both Haiti and the US, and is fast-paced and very readable. While chronicling her own life, she also tells the story of her uncle. He was an amazing man and activist, who was killed in a US Detention Center in Miami. This book is a must read for anyone concerned about the treatment of immigrants in the United States. I highly recommend it. I know that it is easy to shy away from such potentially depressing topics, but I truly believe it is imperative to stay educated on the policies of our nation.

I am settling in to life in the Kingdom of Tonga, but as you all know– Haiti is my passion. By sharing this book, I hope to continue some of that “Haiti work” from abroad.
Here is the NY Times book review:
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/09/books/review/Row-t.html

I recently finished Murakami’s “Dance, Dance, Dance.” I still preferred “Kafka on the Shore,” but I love his ability to blur the lines between reality and supernatural and metaphysical. I adored “Purple Hibiscus,” which is the first book written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She is a Nigerian author (my age), and her writing absolutely blows me away. The Baltimore Sun described it as “One of the best novels to come out of Africa in years.” It explores the violence perpetuated by the Christian religion in developing countries.

I finished “The Happy Isles of Oceania” by Paul Theroux. It was an absolutely fantastic travelogue about this region. Laura and Trenton (other Peace Corps trainees) passed it on to me. The author ventures to the South Pacific, exploring fifty-one islands by collapsible kayak. Also just read “Getting Stoned with Savages.” It is a must read!

I really enjoyed reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love.” I rarely find myself reading “best sellers” (unless you count Harry Potter), but travelogues are of a particular interest right now…. This was one of my favorite books this year. I have passed it on in the typical Peace Corps fashion to a fellow volunteer.

Other recent favorites this year were: the memoir of Queen Noor of Jordan entitled “Leap of Faith.” Both the region and her perspective are fascinating and ‘Under the Half Yellow Sun’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This historical fiction novel about Nigeria and the independent state of Biafra was an unbelievably poignant read.

F Scot’s Picks: My Rating is out of (5)

Currently: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins(figured it was a good pick for Tonga), Second Foundation by Isacc Asimov

Finished:

Getting Stoned with Savages (also a good pick for Tonga) 4.0

Haruki Murakami : Kafka on the Shore(4.5), Wind up Bird Chronicle(2), Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World(5), A Wild Sheep Chase(4), Norwegian Wood(3), After the Quake (3), Dance, Dance, Dance(4), South of the Border, West of the Sun(3.5)

Lord of the Flies(2.5) (remembered it being good, kinda sucky)

An American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps(2.5) (terribly written)

So you want to join the Peace Corps: What to know before you go (3.5) (decent, but a bit dated)
Lonely Planet Tonga and the Samoan Islands (4.5) (nearly perfect, but getting a bit dated at this point)

3 Comments»

  Cindi Wichmann wrote @

Your reading list reminded me of one of my favorite books “Fatu Hiva” by Thor Heyerdahl. He and his wife try to get back to nature on an island in the Marquesas in the 1940s. I cannot recall if I mentioned it at the ECMCS school party but y’all would probably enjoy it and find some parallels in your experiences!

  Elaine wrote @

I just finished “Brother, I’m Dying” by Edwidge Danticat. Oh my gosh!! Upon reading the last page, I sat slumped in my chair with the book clutched to my heart for an hour or more. Filled with emotion, I couldl think of nothing else but this beautiful and horrific story. Thanks for the recommendation, Karen.

  Elaine wrote @

Anna Karenina is in my top five favorite books!

love you,
Elaine


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