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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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

last king of scotland - the movie

last king of scotland premiered in uganda right around the time seth arrived in town...about 5 weeks ago. it was a big deal - forest whittaker was here, there was a red carpet at garden city. we didn't have enough connections - although we do know the bbc correspondent - to get us to the premiere, but i wasn't going to miss the chance to see the film. this is the first movie about uganda filmed in uganda, and i'm in uganda. i had to see it.

i am proud and grateful that the movie was filmed in uganda because years down the road i can watch it again and see uganda as it is. uganda scenery, uganda people, uganda idiosyncracies that are so familiar. i wish it had been a movie with a more uplifting plot, but as seth pointed out there are probably 100 countries that have never been a hollywood filming location. so, i'm happy i at least got something because it's true - some of the scenes, especially in the beginning, are very quintessential uganda.

knowing only the peripheral history of amin (this movie compels me to learn more), i cannot comment much on the in/accuracy of his portrayal. even so, i think the movie does a good job of tracing amin's trajectory from beloved savior to quirky paternalistic leader to sadistic despot. although dr. nicholas garrigan is a completely fictional character, he is a good stand-in for illustrating how ugandans were caught up in and affected by amin's transformation over his 8 years of power. in the beginning, amin brought nicholas into his inner circle, impressed him with his charm and magnetism. eventually, amin drew a line between those on his side and those against, taking care of his own. he terrorized the country, but sheltered nicholas from the bloodshed. by the end, however, very few were sheltered and all were in danger, including his former most trusted personal advisor.

the end of the movie is intense and at turns made me cringe and at others made me want to cry, not because of the torture suffered by nicholas but because of the atrocities suffered by uganda under amin. most understated line of the film: "there is too much hatred. our country is drowning in it."

i appreciated the movie for forcing me to think more closely about uganda's history and politics. the other night at dinner, our visiting friend erin asked my opinion of museveni. i wasn't able to say much other than that i felt he missed his chance to be a leader among african leaders when he rewrote the constitution to authorize himself to seek another term as president. otherwise, i am pretty uninformed. i am starkly reminded of nicholas and his naivete when he off-handedly says to sarah, "right, obote. he was the guy here before, and now it's what's his name? oh right, amin." i have a colleague who grew up in the congo and now devotes her professional career to working in africa. i asked her about her reactions to the film. she said that she felt it was a good portrayal of how westerners unknowningly affect local situations negatively because they fail to do their pre-homework.

prior to discovering npr, i was essentially tuned out of the political scene in the u.s. once i became an npr convert, however, i at least could talk the talk and form my own informed opinions. here, in uganda, i get all of my news and current events from bbc world. bbc world is good and there is a bbc africa segment, but overall the programming is not uganda specific and i continue to be somewhat unaware politically. i don't want to be another oblivious dr. nicholas garrigan, so i am hereby committing myself to investing more time into staying up-to-date. first step, read the local newspapers (there are two: one pro-museveni, one not-so-pro-museveni) more regularly.

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

a day in london

i had 11 hours in london today en route from DIA to EBB. unlike my 20+ hour layover a week ago in the other direction, this time i was in london during daylight hours and rather than waste my time sitting in heathrow i spent a day on the town in central london. without a map, i was somewhat limited but as travel would have it i happened upon all kinds of fun sights that i probably would not have chosen had i planned. i purchased ½ price theater tickets in the airport, so at least i had a neighborhood (westminster) as a destination. the tube is as easy as can be, so i had no problems getting around the city. i killed time in the crazy theater district around the leicester (pronounced “lester”) square tube station, got lucky to find the national portrait gallery which was in the midst of its photographic portrait prize 2006 exhibition (highly recommended!), saw evita at the adelphi theater, and finished off the day by ducking into the national gallery to see the manet to picasso exhibit where i got to see such classics as van gogh’s sunflowers. not such a bad 11 hours, huh?

my theater options were limited to those matinees showing on a thursday afternoon, which included mary poppins, billy elliot, and evita. i’m a sucker for musical theater and not really all that discerning, so i was happy seeing anything. i like getting caught up in the romanticism and dramatic extravagance of musical theater. i liked evita, but i wasn’t blown away by it. maybe because i knew all the songs by heart (i own the soundtrack from madonna’s hollywood version) and no one can replace antonio banderas (although his stage replacement also had good looks to match a good singing voice). maybe because it didn’t add much beyond the songs, which made it more like a visual version of the soundtrack. or maybe because for the first time in all the musicals i’ve ever been to (and i’ve been to a lot) it didn’t end on a grand sing-and-dance finale. of course, my lackluster response could also be attributed to my 4-hour sleep the night before on the plane from DIA, so i wouldn’t not go to evita just because of me.

before this trip, i dreaded the british airways flight thru london because it required long layovers on both ends. now, after seeing the benefits of a full-night sleep in a bed on the “going to” and the day on the town on the “coming from,” i might choose this itinerary home more often.

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Monday, December 11, 2006

an apple a day

phil and i have been sick for the better part of the last month - phlegmy coughs, sinus congestion, fevers. major respiratory breakdown, really. phil was feverish when he first came home from the states, then my hacking, choking coughs took center stage for a while, then phil regained the sicky limelight with his chest-rattling cough. all of that to say it's been a month of ill health in the anderson bowen household.

neither one of us is much of a drug-taker (except for the ubiquitous ibu during ultimate season) living by the i'm-young-and-healthy-i'll-get-better-soon philosophy. our philosophy suffered this time around...being sick for a month isn't normal. so, last week i instigated and got us to the surgery. you'll remember the surgery from phil's 9-stitch hand injury in august. positive experience then, so we assumed positive experience now. oh boy, were we wrong.

dr. stockley, a brit, is the main figurehead of the surgery. everyone knows him in kampala, an easily recognized face at the local pub and a regular contributer to "the eye," kampala's monthly chamber of commerce-esque publication. we went to see him in all good faith in a time of need expecting greatness, or at least competency, and walked away thoroughly disappointed and, at least for me, disgusted. four words: rude, arrogant, unconcerned, uninformed.

the first 3 expats i complained to following our doc stock visit said, "let me guess, bilharzia?" bilharzia must be his communicable disease of choice these days. you get bilharzia (aka schistosomiasis) thru contact with contaminated freshwater. we know this. that's why we don't swim in freshwater in uganda. phil got sick in the states before coming home. there isn't bilharzia in the u.s. yet, doc stock ordered a full blood test to diagnose bilharzia and discharged phil saying "if it's not bilharzia, then it's just something you're going to have to get over with time." huh? you told him that his airways are so constricted that he has the lung capacity of a 55-year-old, but that doesn't matter because he has bilharzia? i don't think so.

after talking around town some, i learned that general consensus is "don't go to an expat doc if you're sick." no level of scrutiny is directed their way because it's assumed they're good - they're european or american or whatever, they must be good. right? wrong. the longer they're here the more time they have to slip, to stagnate. besides, expat patients will continue to come to their clinics regardless of quality of care simply because they're an expat provider. following our visit to the surgery, i could not have been more convinced by these theories. (of course, none of this applies to providers on short rotations in the country. they maintain the high-level of professionalism and technical know-how required for successful practice anywhere. case in point, the swedish doc that stitched up phil's hand.)

phil suffered a few more days, before i decided enough is enough and got us to the international hospital kampala (an "international" hospital primarily staffed by ugandans) with a specialist recommendation from a friend.
1st reaction: they have specialists!
2nd reaction: wow, nice facilities. helipad included.
3rd reaction: IHK is where it's at for kampala healthcare. no more the surgery for us.

we didn't wait more than 10 minutes to see dr. olok, a ugandan ENT specialist on staff. he did all the things dr. stockley didn't - asked questions, listened to answers, examined thoroughly, diagnosed, prescribed drugs, cared, established doctor-patient rapport. i was impressed. final diagnosis: sinus infection, chest/lung infection, not bilharzia. we walked away drugs in hand, $40.55 poorer to cover the consultation/meds x2, and (finally...hopefully) on our roads to recovery.

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Saturday, December 02, 2006

the pantomime

an annual christmas tradition in kampala is the pantomime (the "panto"). it's a play, musical, theatrical experience staged 6 times over 5 days in early december. as the stagebill for this year's pantomime says: "for those of you new to panto, it represents an integral part of british culture, requiring certain very specific elements. the hero (the principal boy) must be played by a woman; the leading older woman's part must be played by a husky man (the dame); there must be at least one animal (in this production we have two - a dog and a gorilla); and the audience must participate at every opportunity. yes, this chaos has been carefully designed. it is also traditional for pantomimes to be based on well-known children's stories."

we went with open minds and a sense of humor, as recommeneded, to this year's panto, "tintin goes bananas - what's happened to all the matooke?" the panto is traditionally directed toward the kids both in the cast and in the audience, but no matter. we were sucked into the atmosphere like everyone else; booing and hissing when provoked, cheering when urged. imo snowy stole the show, and big hits of the production were cleverly rewritten lyrics to popularly recognized disney/broadway songs. my favorite was a kampala-centric version of "part of your world" from the little mermaid. no chance that i'll remember any of the lyrics except the one that replaced "what would i give if i could live out of these waters" with "what would i give if i could live in bugolobi." bugolobi's got it going on and the rest of kampala knows it. the 24/7 electricity doesn't hurt our public image, of course.
101paige 101africa
the panto was staged at the national theater, which supports a good theatrical scene in kampala. the kampala amateur dramatics society produces most of the shows (most recently fiddler on the roof) and attracts quality talent. for example, the musical director orchestrated a tony award-winning broadway musical before coming to kampala and being the one responsible for the good music and clever lyrics in the panto. kampala's like that. the year-round predictibly good weather, high quality of life, and active social/cultural scene attract good people.

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Monday, October 23, 2006

Last King of Scotland

i saw the last king of scotland the other day. i'm not really a reviewer but i think you should see it. forest whitaker will win the oscar for leading actor, and for the most part it's often worth watching oscar-winning movies.

the last king of scotland is historical fiction about idi amin and his rule over uganda in the 1970's. a lot (most? all?) of it was shot in uganda and it was totally a thrill to see kampala and the countryside. i wanted to brag to everyone in the theatre that i live there. i heard an interview with forest on NPR, and he told an interesting story about shooting scenes of amin giving a political speech to villagers out in the country. apparantly there were some villagers who were wondering why amin was giving the same speech over and over (answer: multiple shoots of the same scene). they were extras who had been paid to be in the crowd. they thought forest was really amin. getting paid to show up to a political speech back in the day wasn't out of the ordinary, and they didn't know that amin was dead. when told that amin was really an actor from LA, they said no, that is really amin. forest is that good. his accent is ridiculous.

anway. the scottish doctor who is the other starring role was a little annoying. i liked his character better in the book. and they put more sex in than i think there needed to be, but what are you going to do with hollywood?
watching the movie made me really miss uganda. it has an attraction to me that i can't really explain. it took no time at all for me to think of it as home. on paper, nothing about uganda really matches who i am or what i've done with my life up to this point. but there it is; it just feels right. this is sort of random, but i have a similar relationship to sailing. i am totally happy riding the rail and staring at the water for hours and i'm not sure why. both my brothers have sailed and raced internationally, extensively, at times fanatically. i have sailed minimally, but i know that i could be totally content setting off around the world. uganda seems to have that same unexplainable pull.

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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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