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review 2018-01-15 19:36
A Moonless, Starless Sky by Alexis Okeowo
A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa - Alexis Okeowo

This is a short nonfiction work by a Nigerian-American journalist that goes behind the headlines in four conflict areas in Africa, telling the stories of people who range from victims to local leaders. It is a very engaging book, a quick read that introduces readers to several countries and humanizes big events, although at only 236 pages for so many stories, it is very brief and therefore unable to treat its subjects with the depth I would have liked.

Eunice is a teenage girl living in rural northern Uganda when she is kidnapped by Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army while visiting her sister at boarding school. Once in the bush, she is forced to marry Bosco, a young man also kidnapped as a teenager, and both are forced to participate in acts of violence. By the time both eventually escape, they have children together, and Eunice, like many young women whose futures are circumscribed by LRA kidnapping, decides to return to Bosco. Former rebels are given amnesty to encourage defection, but the couple faces ostracism from their community and seems to be passing on their trauma to their children.

Biram is a Mauritanian activist, growing up in a socially conscious family in the last country in the world to outlaw slavery (it became illegal in 1981, but not a criminal offense until 2007), and one where the police remain uninterested in bringing wealthy slaveowners to justice. He starts an organization dedicated to eradicating slavery, rescues slaves directly and draws attention to the cause by risky acts like publicly burning the books used to justify slavery under Muslim law (though he is Muslim himself). Later he expands his focus to other racial justice issues and runs for president of Mauritania.

Abba, aka Elder, is an auditor and patriarch of a large family in northern Nigeria when Boko Haram gains traction in the area. Frustrated by the lack of government response to the attacks, he joins a local vigilante group that captures militants and hands them over to security forces, proving far more effective than the actual military. He becomes a leader in the group and moves into politics as well. Meanwhile, Rebecca is a teenage boarding school student in nearby Chibok when she is kidnapped by Boko Haram along with 300 classmates. Fortunately, she is one of the 50-odd with the courage and presence of mind to quickly escape, and gradually overcomes her trauma while returning to school in a distant city.

Finally, Aisha is a teenage girl in Mogadishu, Somalia, who refuses to let al-Shabaab terrorists intimidate her out of playing basketball. They certainly try – she receives regular death threats by phone, is nearly kidnapped and has a gun pointed at her on a bus – and another female player is brutally murdered. But Aisha is determined to live her own life, and she and her teammates find joy in the game and treasure rare opportunities to participate in tournaments, despite the lack of government support.

These are all fascinating stories, though the subtitle doesn’t quite fit anyone other than perhaps Aisha: Biram and Elder are leaders, not ordinary people, while Rebecca is a survivor but not exactly fighting extremism, and Eunice and Bosco remain victims. Each story is told in two chapters, one in the first half of the book and the other in the second, and the second half provides much of the emotional consequences and complexity that seemed to be missing from the first half. Of course the circumstances of these people’s lives, and the strength required to keep going, is extraordinary to the Western reader. This book tells very compelling stories in a quick and accessible way; for me it is too quick (each of these stories deserves its own book), but it provides a great introduction while telling human stories behind events in the headlines.

My other reservation is the fact that the book cites no sources, and the author tells us nothing about her research other than what happens to come out in the text as she relates her experiences in meeting these folks. She generally applies critical thought to the stories people tell her – for instance, she includes the accusations of brutality against Elder’s group – but sometimes seems to accept simplistic stories, as in the 9-page life story of a Mauritanian slave that seems to be a chronicle of constant abuse. Though the author seems to do her research, it’s never clear how well the stories are corroborated.

Despite that, I think this is a great premise for a book and these stories are engaging, emotional, and well-told, with enough background information included for readers unfamiliar with these countries to understand their contexts. I recommend it.

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review 2018-01-15 18:14
Gut by Giulia Enders
Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body's Most Underrated Organ - Giulia Enders

A book about the digestive system for laypeople. It’s written in a strong voice and is both informative and accessible, explaining current research in terms understandable to the non-scientist and including helpful tips for everyday life. Enders advises readers on everything from cleanliness (wring out kitchen sponges; bacteria love them because they’re warm and damp, but drying can keep them somewhat cleaner) to diet (cold cooked rice, potato salad, asparagus, leeks, garlic and onions are all nutritious offerings for the good bacteria in our digestive system) to combating nausea (ginger has proven effects, as does the acupuncture point P6).

But I have to admit that I didn’t enjoy reading this as much as I expected based on the reviews. Maybe because this just isn’t my favorite subject, and I read it from start to finish, pushing through sections such as the one on laxatives that didn’t particularly interest me in order to reach the more interesting material, like the influence of the gut on the brain. Maybe because I’m used to books with an overarching thesis to pull it all together, where this felt more like a series of disparate topics and a lot of (often intriguing or useful) factoids than a coherent whole. Maybe because so many topics are breezed through so quickly, often in metaphorical language that can help readers picture what’s going on, but that doesn’t provide a full understanding. Still, it’s a useful book with plenty of practical application in daily life, so although it wasn’t my favorite reading experience, I am glad I read it and would recommend.

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review 2018-01-14 22:33
Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
Kintu - Aaron Bady,Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

This is a big, ambitious book, relating the story of an extended family that begins with a patriarch in 1750 and then jumps ahead to 2004, tracing the fortunes of his descendants in modern Uganda. It’s been much discussed as a very Ugandan book, written for local readers and enjoying massive popularity there, but it’s an excellent novel with much to offer international readers as well.

The story begins in the old kingdom of Buganda, where Kintu Kiddu, a governor, journeys to the capital to pay his respects to a new king, who just took power by murdering his brother. Kintu’s most pressing concerns, however, are closer to home, with the large number of wives he’s obliged to marry for political purposes, the grooming of his heir, and the adopted son whose father curses Kintu’s family.

By 2004, Kintu’s descendants are scattered. Suubi, abandoned as a child, has found material stability but is haunted by her dead twin; estranged from her adoptive family, she tentatively searches for her relatives at the urging of her boyfriend. Kanani is an old man who, along with his fanatical wife, has found refuge in an evangelical Anglican sect, but their zealotry has driven away their children and the family keeps a shameful secret. Isaac has overcome childhood neglect and survived war to be economically successful, but he believes he has given HIV to his wife and child and is afraid to confirm it. Miisi is foreign-educated but chooses to live in a village, where he is raising a small tribe of grandchildren after the deaths of his children.

Plot summaries about this book tend to focus on the ancient curse, but as someone who usually finds fictional curses to be boring plot drags, I was impressed with Makumbi’s handling of this element. The Kintu clan believes that they are cursed, but the story leaves room for other interpretations. The characters experience a lot of hardship, but in the modern story it never feels inevitable, as in those books where you know every hope will end in tragedy. When the clan ultimately comes together in an attempt to remove the curse,

the outcome is ambiguous; but what’s clear is that they have connected with one another, forming a support network to buoy relatives who are isolated or in crisis. Perhaps their isolation from one another was the problem all along, and the ceremonial aspects are simply a way to bring people together and give them a common goal.

(spoiler show)

But having more than one possible reading is a sign of good literature.

And this is a really good book. It’s engaging and moves quickly, with short chapters and lot of dialogue, and a few secrets for readers to guess. The characters are believable and complex, even those who only appear for short periods of time, and this is quite a feat given that there are a lot of them. The writing is good and there is a strong sense of place, though this is a book much more focused on people than descriptions; the culture comes out in the way people speak and what they think and worry about. When people talk about this book being “too African” for British readers (Makumbi evidently couldn’t get a publisher there), I suspect it’s not really about the book’s lack of white characters or focus on colonialism and its aftermath. All that has been done before, though this book remains notable for the lack of European presence in such an expansive historical epic; there’s a lot more to Uganda’s history than its decades of British rule, and we see that in context here.

No, I think the British publishers just took issue with the book’s being aimed at Ugandan readers: the language, the names, the culture aren’t simplified, but form the foundations of the book’s complex world. I doubt international readers will actually have trouble understanding it. No matter where you’re from, it’s an engaging story with a lot of humanity that anyone will recognize, and books tend to be better when they don’t make patronizing assumptions about their audiences.

Aside from being a good story, this book has a lot to say. In the introduction (which I recommend actually reading – it’s spoiler-free and provides interesting background and context), Makumbi describes the book as “masculinist,” for its look at how patriarchy hurts men. The book doesn’t explicitly discuss gender roles, but it’s there, from Kintu’s struggles to sexually gratify the many young wives politics require him to marry when he only wants one, to Isaac’s issues with female sexuality, which lead him to marry a woman who can recognize his issues and use them to manipulate him. When asked if this isn’t feminism, Makumbi replied that her next book is the feminist one – which has me excited for that book. But I can see where she’s coming from: this book is more focused on the men, though the women are complex and varied.

Finally, it’s a fascinating look at the combination of tradition and modernity. There are a lot of traditional Ganda beliefs in the novel, but it doesn’t idealize the past or portray it as monolithic. (One of the funniest scenes involves a traditional all-night advice session for Kintu’s son on the eve of his marriage; the men give him a lot of contradictory advice about sex and marriage.) In the present, the clan varies in their adherence to tradition, from Kanani, who wants to do away with it, to his sister Bweeza, whose persistence and enthusiasm for the old ways make her the “Great Aunt” of the clan. Modernity creeps into traditional ceremonies, where the hired medium is foreign-educated, while old ways and traditional motifs reassert themselves in modern contexts.

Overall then, this is an excellent novel, combining storytelling prowess with big ideas and food for thought. I hope its unfamiliarity won’t scare readers off; one of the great advantages of reading is the ability to experience other lives and cultures, and this is a perfect book for the armchair traveler. And it has an engaging plot, complex characters and universal themes to interest those with no connection to Uganda. I hope it is widely read and that we get more books like this.

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review 2018-01-11 17:52
Review: "The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue" by Mackenzi Lee
The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue - Mackenzi Lee

 

~ 4.5 stars ~

 

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review 2018-01-10 16:45
Gorilla and the Bird by Zack McDermott
Gorilla and the Bird: A Memoir of Madness and a Mother's Love - Zack McDermott

This is a fantastic memoir by a public defender with bipolar disorder, who occasionally experiences intense psychotic episodes. Zack McDermott is an excellent storyteller and onetime aspiring comedian, so this book will pull you right in, keep you rapt and sometimes make you laugh, despite its sometimes heavy subject matter.

The beginning of the book throws readers right into McDermott’s first psychotic episode: having met with a producer about his comedy routine only a few days before, he walks out of his apartment convinced that he is in the middle of an audition. He wanders New York City for hours, acting wacky for the cameras, until the police pick him up and take him to the hospital. Over the next couple of years, he’s hospitalized several times, struggling but eventually learning how to keep his disease under control. He is supported throughout by his mom “the Bird,” a rock star teacher of underprivileged teens who is there for her kid no matter what. The book also traces McDermott’s childhood – growing up poor in Kansas City with a single mom putting herself through school – and includes a fair bit about his work as a public defender. (I enjoyed those bits a lot; they are as no-holds-barred as the rest of the book.)

McDermott would probably make an excellent novelist, because he turns his life into a compelling story, with humor and sharp dialogue alongside a gripping plot. I read it very quickly, and it’s one of those books that’s hard to review in part because when I return to look at something in the book, I start reading it again. It seems to me that, despite some dark subject matter, the author chose to put an optimistic spin on his life in the book; an essay published the same week includes some of the same material but also discusses trauma that’s absent from the memoir. It seems like the book’s happy ending is true as far as it goes, but also isn’t the whole story. Probably no memoir is.

At any rate, it’s an excellent book. And without ever appearing to have an agenda (the author seems more upset about the way poor people of color are treated in the criminal justice system than anything that happens to him), the book challenges the stigma around mental illness, as well as the notion that a serious mental illness will inevitably ruin someone’s life or end in tragedy. I definitely recommend this one.

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