My Favorite Books

‘Tis the season for year-end lists of favorite books. Here’s mine from Moldova. I downloaded almost all of these books onto my Kindle for free through the online OverDrive system which, as I’ve written previously, is the best thing that ever happened to a Peace Corps Volunteer who likes to read.

I could fill my Top Ten list just with recent novels I read this year. My three favorites were Exit West, Mohsin Hamid’s brilliant depiction of two refugees from a war-torn Arab country; The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, which captures the brutal insanity of North Korea; and The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead’s chilling exploration of slavery in antebellum America. All three novels haunted me for weeks.

I also loved Manhattan Beach, which Jennifer Egan sets on the waterfront of New York, showing us a different side of the city while telling a harrowing yet moving family saga. Richard Ford’s Let Me Be Frank With You and Richard Russo’s Everybody’s Fool are gentler but wonderfully written, with compelling protagonists struggling to make sense of their aging years. Viet Thanh Nguyen in The Sympathizer and Karan Mahajan in Association of Small Bombs both took me to communities I barely knew before. Tom Perrotta’s Mrs. Fletcher was funny and wise. Carl Hiaasen’s Razor Girl was even funnier. All ten of these novels were a pleasure.

I also loved three older novels: Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee, whose depiction of a man’s life upturned by accusations of sexual misconduct seemed especially timely now; Redeployment by Phil Klay, rightly hailed as one of the best novels about the Iraq war; and Smiley’s People by the great John LeCarre, who published an acclaimed autobiography this year.

I’ll give a partial thumbs-up to three other novels: Moonglow by Michael Chabon; The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian; and Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. Bohjalian’s book is about the Armenian genocide, and I read it shortly before we visited Armenia. Like the others, I thought it was good, not great. I was even less enthusiastic about Jenny Lawson’s Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, which was snarkily funny in places but somehow didn’t click for me.

I also read some great nonfiction this year. My favorite book was Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. I know it’s come in for criticism for its depiction of dysfunctional white families in Appalachia, but I found it insightful following our election last year. Arlie Russell Hochschild covered some of the same issues in Louisiana in Strangers in Their Own Land, which I enjoyed but found less compelling. Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, Born to Run, was a treat from cover to cover. So was reporter Katy Tur’s recent Unbelievable, about covering the Trump campaign, although its uneven text reflected the haste with which it presumably was written. (Sorry, always an editor.)

I’m in a science book club back home, so I’ll give a shout-out to my favorite science book of the year: Steve Olson’s Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens. It wove geology, politics, history and personal stories into a narrative I would have found engaging even if Steve weren’t a good friend.

I’m also a history fan. In Revolutionary Summer, Joseph Ellis offered a fresh look at how early military defeats under George Washington nearly ended the American Revolution in its early days. In The Wright Brothers, David McCullough showed how the two aviation pioneers were nothing less than admirable, illustrating what’s best in the American character at a time when I needed to be reminded.

I’ll also give a hat tip to two novels I read just for fun. In Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan poked fun at the super-rich families of SIngapore and Hong Kong. I’m looking forward to seeing the movie version when it comes out next year. Another comedy of manners featuring people with too much money was Eligible, Curtis Sittenfield’s modern adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Once again: well-done fluff that kept me turning the pages.

Detective and mystery novels are great page-turners, too, and I read several good ones this year, including books by John Grisham (The Litigators), David Baldacci (The Guilty), Paula Hawkins (Girl on a Train) and Jonathan Kellerman (The Murderer’s Daughter). My favorite was Jo Nesbo’s The Redbreast, which dealt with neo-Nazis emerging from the shadows, in this case in Norway, yet another case of novels unexpectedly touching on today’s news.

Then there were travel and adventure books. I’d missed The Old Patagonian Express by one of my favorite travel writers (and former Peace Corps Volunteer), Paul Theroux. It described his trip across Latin America. Eric Weiner’s entertaining The Geography of Bliss explored why some countries are happier than others, with Moldova featured at the opposite end of the happiness scale. In The Taliban Shuffle, Kim Barker described her adventures as a foreign war correspondent, a tale recently adapted by Tina Fey in the film Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. David and Veronica James in Going Gypsy and Kristin Newman in What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding described extended trips they made after leaving the workplace. All gave me new perspective on my own recent adventures.

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Among the books I expected to like better but never finished were The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova; The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood; Still Here by Laura Vapnyar; Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. The biggest clunker for me was Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which extolled the virtues of simplicity and decluttering while bloating a 10-page idea into an entire book.

Finally, and I’m embarrassed to admit this, 2017 was the year when I finally got around to reading some of the Harry Potter books. I blasted through both Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets and am looking forward to reading the others in the year ahead. That is, if I can find time after we get home and start binge-watching all of the movies we’ve missed.

Thanks to the Durham County Library and the Duke University Libraries, together with the OverDrive system, for providing these great books for free. Which others did I miss? I welcome your suggestions and will look forward to reading some of them in the year ahead. If you’re a reader, too, I hope you’ll try some of the books I’ve recommended here. Happy reading in 2018!

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Libraries Turn the Page

In both America and Moldova, libraries are racing to redefine themselves and remain relevant in an online world.

IMG_9072Back home, where people now routinely download books and find information on the internet, libraries are emphasizing their roles in providing expertise and bringing people together, whether with story times for kids, study spaces for students or programming for retirees.

IMG_9175Here in Moldova, the transition has been even more challenging. Library budgets and salaries are tiny. Many library buildings are old, with collections dating to Soviet times. There are no resources to buy books, much less comfy sofas or cappucino machines.

Last week, the library where I work in Ialoveni showed how some Moldovan libraries are moving forward despite these challenges. Together with the local Consiliul Raional, or county government, it organized a “library day” to showcase its recent innovations.

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Under the leadership of director Valentina Plamadeala, speaking above, the library now has a film animation class, a club that produces crafts from recycled materials, a robotics program and a workshop to teach modern advocacy techniques. It’s organizing a new weekly story time for toddlers that will also provide educational programming for parents and grandparents. It hopes to provide new programs for people with special needs, building on a Braille collection it recently added. The library is reaching out to its community in interesting ways, too, using videos, infographics and social media.

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Located near the city’s main traffic circle, Ialoveni’s library is named for Petre Ştefănucă, a folklorist and local hero who died in a Soviet gulag. At last Tuesday’s event, I was moved as librarian Larisa Petcu, above, showed off the small museum that honors his memory, telling local high school students about him. I was also impressed by the presentations from some other nearby libraries that participated in the event. Cătălina Russu, a reporter for TVR Moldova, also attended and produced the video shown at the beginning of this post (also available on YouTube; at 1:35, I speak briefly in English.)

Novateca, a program managed by the nonprofit organization IREX with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in partnership with USAID, has been a driving force behind the modernization of Moldova’s public libraries, building on similar programs in neighboring Romania and Ukraine. Since it began operations here five years ago, Novateca has provided thousands of computers and other resources, trained librarians across the country, increased public support for libraries and promoted a more expansive vision of their role in a civil society.

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I’ve become a big fan of Novateca’s work and was pleased to see its director, Evan Tracz — himself a former Peace Corps Volunteer, in Turkmenistan — at last Tuesday’s event. (He’s in the center of the photo below, awarding certificates to me and others with Tudor Grigoriță of the Consiliul Raional.) Evan and his team have had a transformative impact. Novateca is now winding down its activities as its funding comes to an end. Many of us hope Moldova’s libraries will continue making progress without them.

I have great respect for the people I work with at Ialoveni’s library. They are doing so much with so little, earning less in a year than some American librarians make in a couple of weeks. They keep looking for better ways to serve the community here without a coffee maker in sight, much less a cappucino machine.

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200 Posts: Top Ten

This is my 200th post on Not Exactly Retired, which I started in mid-2015.IMG_0992 As we’ve traveled around the United States, spent time in Nepal and served as Peace Corps Volunteers in Moldova, the blog’s audience has kept growing, with more than 26,000 visits so far. Thanks to all of you who have joined us on our journey!

FullSizeRender 808“Not Exactly Retired” advances two of the three official goals of Peace Corps: to promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans, and vice versa. (The other goal is to “help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.”)

Here’s a Top Ten list of the blog’s most popular stories so far, as measured by views. There’s more to come, so stick around — and if you know anyone who might enjoy Not Exactly Retired, please tell them about it and invite them to subscribe.

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The Most-Viewed Stories on Not Exactly Retired

  1. Peace Corps After 50 (featured on PBS/NextAvenue)
  2. Peace Corps: Now vs. Then (comparing service in Nepal and Moldova)
  3. Funny Peace Corps Videos (the joys of pooping in a hole)
  4. Moldova’s Marathon (a recent story about runners here)
  5. Are Volunteers Over-Connected? (from WorldView Magazine)
  6. Older Peace Corps Volunteers (a 5-part series about Moldova)
  7. Message in a Bottle (discovering your impact on someone, decades later)
  8. Life is Calling (making a big change doesn’t need to be scary)
  9. Reading in OverDrive (how to read books on your e-reader for free)
  10. The Smokehouse Experiment (former PCVs open a restaurant here)

Other popular stories have focused on the perils of downsizing after decades of American life, Thanksgiving in Moldova, an amazing Romanian salt mine and the adventures a friend and I experienced years ago while backpacking across Afghanistan, Nepal, Sudan and other places.

Not surprisingly, most of the blog’s views have come from readers in the United States, followed by Moldova. Rounding out the Top Ten are Romania, the United Kingdom, Nepal, Canada, Germany, Ecuador, India and the Philippines, all with at least 100 views.

Are you enjoying “Not Exactly”? Do you have any reactions to these lists? Requests for future stories? As always, I welcome your feedback and comments.

 

Champa’s Projects

Composting. Arts and crafts. Helping kids with special needs.

These are just some of the things Champa has been doing here when she isn’t teaching English at her school. Recently Peace Corps Moldova asked her and several other eduction volunteers to highlight their out-of-class activities for a conference. Her presentation reminded me of how busy she’s been. These photos tell the story:

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Champa hosts a weekly English conversation class at our local library.

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She participates sometimes in a weekly club at the library where local women create hats and other objects from recycled materials.

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She’s helping a local NGO compost its food scraps and start a vegetable garden and has also started a compost pile with our host family, shown above.

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For International Children’s Day, Champa organized a project in which local residents described in a few words what the day meant to them. (That’s our city’s mayor in the blue shirt and tie, helping her.)

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She is managing a Peace Corps small grants project at her school to create a costume and prop wardrobe for its drama program. She’s posing above with her school partner Ana and in the bottom photo with Ana and Ina, the project’s designer.

Champa also volunteers weekly at a local center for special-needs kids and, of course, does all of her regular work at the school, as well as participating in community cultural events, hanging out with our host family and sharing all of the shopping and cooking with me. She doesn’t like calling attention to herself but today I’m making an exception.

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Journalism Club

The “5 W’s” — who, what, where, when and why, plus how — are the language of journalism, no matter what language you speak.

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This past Friday, teenagers in a journalism club in the Moldovan town of Călărași answered all five of these questions with flair when I challenged them to write stories and headlines in just a few minutes.

IMG_8904One student described an imaginary murder. Another imagined a fight in a local store. Others chose more peaceful or funny scenarios. All did a great job of answering the 5 W’s, which are care, ce, unde, cand and de ce in Romanian, plus cum for “how.”IMG_4614 copy

A fellow Peace Corps Volunteer, Shannon, invited me to the club, which she and her Moldovan partner Cristina started recently. (That’s the two of them in the photo below.) One of our other volunteer colleagues, Haley, has also started a journalism club, in Comrat.

Shannon’s group meets weekly in the Călărași primăria, or town hall, where she works. Only some of the participants are considering journalism as a career but all are interested in it and eager to learn. Shannon invited me to lead a lesson and share some of my experiences in journalism and communications.

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As you can see from the photos, we had a great time, beginning with an “icebreaker” in which people had to guess the name of a famous person someone wrote on a post-it note and placed on their forehead or behind them.

I also enjoyed traveling to Călărași by minibus, seeing the town, and then returning later that afternoon by rail, my first time on a Moldovan train.

All in all, I can report the experience was wonderful, warmhearted, winning, welcome and worthwhile. Hugely.

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Tbilisi in 30 Seconds (x2)

During our recent trip to Armenia and Georgia, I captured two of Tbilisi’s highlights with 30-second videos: one featuring whimsy, the other faith.

At the Rezo Gabriadze Marionette Theater, whimsical characters circled a clock tower at the stroke of noon. This video is also available on YouTube.

At the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta, near Tbilisi, we saw a wedding and people praying in a stunning setting. This video is also on YouTube.

The Surprise of Travel

The modest roadside cafe we saw outside the Armenian village of Sevkar lacked a sign in English, much less a website. It was hardly the place you’d expect two older Americans to stop for lunch. But we did, unexpectedly, while traveling last week and it turned out to be a highlight of our trip. It also provided a reminder about how we all need to look beyond our plans and checklists to embrace life’s surprises.

It was before noon and we were the only customers there. The owner led us into his kitchen, pointed to some bowls of meat and asked what we’d like him to barbecue over his charcoal fire. IMG_8603Then, as the meat sizzled, he sliced bread, tomatoes, onions and cheese onto a plate and took them outside to a wooden table, where he invited us to sit.

The barbecue was beyond delicious, as was everything else. Here along a small road in northern Armenia, we enjoyed one of the best meals of our lives.

This happened only because we asked our driver to find somewhere to stop early for lunch so we could spend our remaining Armenian money before crossing the border into Georgia.

This is one of the things I love most about traveling. No itinerary can anticipate many of the experiences that end up making a trip memorable.

Here’s another example: While in Armenia we also came across an area filled with small stone cairns, which reminded us of the mani stones people in Nepal pile along trekking paths. Beside them were hundreds of cloth and plastic ribbons wrapped around trees and bushes, which people placed for good wishes and luck. They, too, fascinated us, even though we’d actually come to see the adjacent Geghard monastery, partially carved out of a mountain.

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We were surprised at a Jewish synagogue, too. Its caretaker in Tbilisi, Georgia, gave Champa and me a private tour, even opening the ark to show us some of their Torah scrolls. He told us about Tbilisi’s small Jewish community and took the photo you see here.

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While near Tbilisi, we also discovered wine ice cream, from this woman at Mtskheta. We thought it was a gimmick but I bought a cone and it was wine ice cream, and pretty tasty, too.

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We also were surprised by people like this New Zealand woman, Lesley, who we met at an Armenian restaurant that provided a demonstration of traditional lavash baking. We discovered she lived previously in Turkmenistan, where she was friends with a young American woman who is now in our Peace Corps group in Moldova.

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Then there was the woman with the red jacket you see talking with Champa. She is a physical therapist from the Philippines who works in Dubai. She and her husband came to Armenia for a brief vacation while renewing their visas. They were among several foreign nationals we met in Armenia who work in the Gulf. Who knew? The two Chinese women in the foreground, who took selfies and texted nonstop during our tour, are air hostesses for a Gulf airline.

It’s humbling for a planner like me to acknowledge that my detailed trip itineraries often fail to anticipate what Champa and I will remember most about a trip. As I wrote when I started this blog, one of my goals in being “not exacty retired” is to recognize the richness of life’s surprises and make the most of them, especially when traveling. “After being tied to calendars and project schedules for so many years,” I wrote then, “I wanted to embrace the unknown.”

Now, two and half years later, and especially after returning from a great trip, I feel that way even more. Spreadsheets are great but, in both the dictionary and on the road, serendipity will always come first.

We're still working — but now as Peace Corps volunteers. Join us on the journey.

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