Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Abyssinian Chronicles by Moses Isegawa

i've been lethargic in my reading lately. i think it has a lot to do with phil being home. i read a lot more when he's gone, which explains why i have a new book review since i read a lot when he was in scandanavia last month.

abyssinian chronicles is one of the few (only?) books written by a ugandan about uganda. uganda is the lesser known sister of the e. african trio - kenya, tanzania, uganda. kenya and tanzania get much more attention in the popular press because of "better" tourism, stronger economy (kenya), or famous islands (tanzania). uganda is known for idi amin and maybe its gorillas. to find a novel set in uganda is rare, especially one that's not all about amin (last king of scotland) or gorillas (gorillas in the mist...sort of uganda and not really a novel, but you get my point).

i really enjoyed abyssinian chronicles. the story was good, but even more fun was reading a book that was set right out my backdoor - literally. minneapolis isn't a hotspot as a setting for novels and neither is kampala for that matter, so any books that are set in either place feel very personal. as if i'm one of a very few who are able to connect directly with the book having lived in that neighborhood, having driven on that road, having shopped in that market. that's how it was with abyssinian chronicles.

isegawa's prose is often reminescent of gabriel garcia marquez - i guess i'm not the only one who thinks that considering the back of the book jacket says "like an african one hundred years of solitude" - with its flowery magical descriptions of everyday events. the beginning of the book dragged for me as it was more the uber-detailed story of a young boy's life than about uganda, but by the middle i was engrossed. i liked reading fiction about the 1980s guerrilla insurgency and later the onset of HIV/AIDS (two seminal events in modern ugandan history) in familiar places like masaka. i could connect to the events on a more personal level, identifying with the places and the characters.

i felt like isegawa sometimes got caught up in his overly analogous, metaphorical language, which left me wondering what he was really talking about for sentences on end, but in the end his accurate portrayal of life in uganda (kampala, village and the in-between) leaves this on the top of my recommended-reading-if-you're-traveling-to-uganda list.

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Thursday, September 07, 2006

field guide to east african birds

If you're living in East Africa, hands-down the birding book to get is the Helm Field Guides Series, Birds of East Africa by Terry Stevenson & John Fanshawe. It covers Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi...in-depth. Beware it's size, which makes it somewhat cumbersome to take along while traipsing through the forest. But don’t worry, its usefulness (i.e. good illustrations and accurate distribution maps of every bird imaginable in East Africa) quickly outweighs its heft.

Our trusty copy of the field guide has already served me well. With it I’ve now correctly identified the following birds from the last few weeks: the two woodland kingfishers playing in our pool, the black-and-white-casqued hornbills (misidentified earlier as trumpeter hornbills; as it turns out trumpeters aren't found in uganda) and great blue turacos on my recent drive to Masaka, and the crested (?) guineafowl and flock of 10 crested cranes I saw smack in the middle of Kampala city. 101paige 101africa 101ht

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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Atonement by Ian McEwan

Again, another book not about Africa. A good one, though.

I've never read any Ian McEwan books before. A synopsis of his book First Love, Last Rites: "Taut, brooding, and densely atmospheric, these stories show us the ways in which murder can arise out of boredom, perversity can result from adolescent curiosity, and sheer evil might be the solution to unbearable loneliness." Yeah, I'm not going to read that. Atonement, on the other hand, was nothing like that.

Atonement is the story of a younger sister, an older sister, and a boy as told in three parts: the first set in pre-WWII England, the second set in northern France during the retreat of the British army to Dunkirk, the third set in London right before the 1940 bombing raids. The plot centers on a falsely accused crime and how that crime affected the lives of those involved. More broadly, though, it's about how people have the ability to shape their memories of events in an attempt to create more palatable outcomes and avoid the discomfort associated with what really happened, and how writing is a method for that attempt.

The last 2+ pages make the book and are a dead-on description of living with a past you cannot change. 101paige 101reviews

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Friday, July 28, 2006

A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons by Robert M. Sapolsky

1 of the best books i've read in a while. as annbarry says, "hi-larious," but also touching & insightful.

this is the story of a wildlife biologist living in the field with his troop of baboons in kenya. but, sapolsky gives us more than that. the chapters switch from stories of the baboons - their personalities, habits, and his relationships with them - to his travels across east africa and various encounters with various africans. it's a coming-of-age story for a scientist, a baboon troop, and a kid in love with africa. so far, it's one of the better, more accurate accounts i've read about living in east africa. sapolsky isn't judgmental, just honest. okay, maybe he's a little judgmental, but i (mostly) agreed with his judgements so they didn't bother me.

the baboons take on lives of their own as characters in sapolsky's memoir and by the middle of the book i was laughing out loud at their adolescent, human-like antics as i recounted stories of their serengeti adventures to phil. the baboons alone make this book good. add to them a little travelogue, some scientific analysis, a bit of cultural anthropology, and a mix of colonial critique, self-reflection, and liberalism and this book is really good. ok, and i admit, the TB intrigued the public healther in me.101paige 101reviews

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book reviews by paige

i've always loved reading, but when i moved to seattle a year ago i became a crazy avid reader. probably 'cos phil wasn't around and i had lots of time to read at night after work. i found an awesome bookstore in seattle - queen anne books (top of queen anne hill on q.a. avenue, shares a building with an equally awesome coffee shop, el diablo) - and went on a book-reading kick. i'd go there weekly to buy a couple of books, have some coffee, pound out my masters thesis. it was also the location of 1 of phil & my best wedding-planning sprees. definitely a place i miss no longer living in seattle.

the staff at queen anne books is amazing...well read, good suggestions - when i asked for recommendations for books on africa, they emailed me a list of 20 books (fiction, nonfiction, memoir...you name it). of the ones i've read, they've all been worthwhile.

anyway, after all this reading i got the notion of writing reviews. i've never written reviews before, so bear (bare?) with me. but, i figure, why not? maybe this will give you ideas of what and what not to read, insight on the literature of africa, or just be entertaining to hear me ramble about the books i read. so, there's a couple of reviews backdated in the blog - you can find them by clicking on the "reviews" category button to the right.

as i read more, i'll write more reviews. 1o1paige 101reviews

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Monday, July 17, 2006

Angels & Demons by Dan Brown

(Ok, so not all of the books I’m reading are about Africa…)

If you’re looking for the same formulaic plot as The Da Vinci Code, look no further than Angels & Demons. The back cover of the book claims: “discover the world of The Da Vinci Code with the book that started it all.” More accurately it should read: “discover the world of Dan Brown as he writes the same book over and over again.”

Sure Angels & Demons is entertaining to read, but the number of plot twists is sickening and Dan Brown’s ability to leave you hanging at the end of his 1-page chapters is excruciatingly annoying. I’d rather feel compelled to continue reading because I’m actually intrigued by how the plot is unfolding, rather than feel forced to continue by an author who seems incapable of ­­­­writing more than 2 pages of text before jumping to the next plot twist and entirely capable of compartmentalizing his novel into a multitude of short, vacuous chapters (hello…page 62 is already chapter 20). And the number of flashbacks – argh! There were at least 3 characters – Langdon, Maximillian Kohler, Camerlengo Carlo Ventresca, Vittoria Vetra – who had some pivotal experience around age 10-12 that continued to influence them in adulthood and who had to flashback to said experience at some point in the Angels & Demons narrative. It definitely got old.

Angles & Demons introduces Robert Langdon as the crime-solving, world-religion-saving Harvard symbologist. I wasn’t really taken by Langdon or the uncanny number of times he survived near-death experiences. Sure, his ability to solve puzzles is admirable, but being a puzzle-solver will only get a man so far. Plus, his relationship with Vittoria Vetra seemed somewhat canned.

The good friend who recommended Angels & Demons to me said that, according to her sister who is a professional art curator, it is more artistically and historically accurate than The Da Vinci Code. Not knowing anything about art history, I’ll have to give it that. In my opinion, if you’ve read one Dan Brown novel, you’ve read them all. Pick whichever one strikes you as the most interesting, read it, and then be done with Dan Brown. 101paige 101reviews

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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch

Being an undergraduate history major and on my way to Africa, I should have known more about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. But, admittedly and probably like many of my fellow Americans, I was naïve, unaware, and protected from world news in 1994, which pre-dated my introduction to NPR in 2000.

This book is a gripping journalistic account of the 1994 genocide. It makes the genocide real in a way that is personal, uncomfortable, and shocking. Gourevitch explores the historical roots of the ethnic tensions in Rwanda shedding light on the many layers of colonial involvement in developing that tension. Like much of journalistic investigative reporting, the book intermittently gets bogged down in the locations, the characters, the dates. But, considering the magnitude of the events that occurred in Rwanda from the 1960s until the early 1990s, I couldn’t fault Gourevitch for his attention to detail.

12 years later I feel that most people are at least aware that there was a genocide in Rwanda, maybe in great part because of Don Cheadle and Hotel Rwanda. But, 12 years ago, the majority of the world looked the other way as 800,000 Tutsis were killed in the span of 3 months. Gourevitch’s account is a must-read for anyone interested in how such a tragedy could happen. 101paige 101reviews

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Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Capetown by Paul Theroux

Being the first Africa book I read and considering I was reading it as I landed in Africa for the fist time, you can understand why I consider this one of the more influential books in my Africa experience.

Theroux’s overland safari takes us all the way down Eastern Africa “from Cairo to Capetown.” He passes through Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, and South Africa. His accounts of the various landscapes, people, and cultures of these countries are intriguing and definitely gave me a good idea of where I was going. However, his cynicism and jaded attitude struck me the most. He overly romanticizes the Peace Corps and excessively berates any other foreign aid workers. After an extended rant about aid workers who naively think they can positively contribute to development in Africa and a concurrent discussion on the negative dependence created within African governments by the outside hand of foreign aid, he arrogantly suggests that his offer to teach university students for 1 week in Malawi is valuable and should be received with open arms. His contradictory and hypocritical approach lends a “holier than thou” tint to his writings. I was happy to see that he recognized his own hypocrisy and admits that his offer to teach was more to assuage his fear of aging (he was celebrating his 60th birthday) than to truly help those in need.

Despite this, I appreciated Theroux’s hard criticism of 3rd world development and its various actors. I will be considering his opinions and developing my own on this topic for quite some time, I am sure. 101paige 101reviews

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