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review 2019-01-16 16:02
Unbowed by Wangari Maathai
Unbowed - Wangari Maathai
I loved the first 50 pages of this memoir, covering the author’s childhood. Later on, though, it becomes more of a catalog of the many campaigns she was involved in and all her accomplishments – this is more an autobiography than a memoir – and it becomes rather impersonal and at times even a little self-righteous. Dr. Wangari Maathai seems like an amazing but complicated person, and I think I might have gotten more out of a third-party biography of her.

Born to a polygamous Kikuyu family in Kenya during British rule, Maathai grew up growing her own food and listening to stories around the fire at night. She was fortunately enrolled in a local school, and later went away to boarding school and then to college in Kansas. On returning home with her Master’s in biology, she proceeded to get a university job, marry, have three children, and become the first woman in East Africa to earn a Ph.D. She was heavily involved in women’s organizations as a young professional, which led to her founding the Green Belt Movement, meant to combat both deforestation and poverty by planting trees. She saw the two issues as intimately connected: Kenya’s loss of trees meant a loss of clean water and firewood, which meant health issues and the impoverishment of farmers who struggled to feed their families, as well as more landslides, poorer soil, and a host of other ills. Ultimately she devoted herself to the Green Belt Movement full-time – even having staff work out of her home when one of many run-ins with the government meant a loss of office space. She led campaigns to preserve parks and forests in Kenya, but also to free political prisoners, allow meaningful opposition in government, and more. At the time she wrote this book, she had become a member of parliament and government minister herself, as well as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. But she didn’t get there without facing a lot of opposition throughout her life, including arrests, harassment and beatings by the police, and a nasty public divorce in which she was criticized for not being sufficiently submissive.

All of which is to say that Maathai was clearly an extraordinary person. And I loved the way she wrote about her childhood; take this passage for instance, set during her adolescence:

Three months later, when I returned home for the next holiday, it was time to harvest the red kidney beans I had planted earlier. I borrowed a donkey from a neighbor and went to our farm in the Gura valley. The harvesting and thrashing took most of the day and by late afternoon I had harvested about one and a half sacks of beans. “Well,” I thought to myself, “I’m strong and the donkey looks sturdy enough,” so one sack went onto the donkey’s back and the remaining half sack I took for my own. Off we went, two beasts of burden crawling up and down the hills on narrow paths, bent over trying to carry these heavy loads. By the time we reached the Tucha River, it was getting dark and I was very tired. I may not have guided the donkey properly and before I knew it she slipped and rolled down the slope.

I didn’t have a clue what to do. Gathering my senses, I found a place to leave my load of beans and rushed to assist the donkey, who luckily had not been hurt in the fall. I helped her up, loaded the bag of beans onto her back again, and encouraged her back onto the path. I heaved my own sack onto my back and off we trudged again. As we neared our homestead at Ihithe village, we both had had enough and collapsed in a heap. My mother ran out of the house and could not believe what she saw: a donkey and her daughter lying exhausted next to each other. “How did you make it?” she cried. “These are enormous sacks of beans! I never expected you to carry so many beans. You shouldn’t do that.” The donkey and I were too tired to reply.


I love that: her humor, and the passion and pride she finds in subsistence farming, which most readers are likely to dismiss as a miserable, empty existence. She portrays a full emotional life in what we would consider abject poverty. And with grace and humor to boot.

That said, as the book goes on, it becomes much more about her public life. Her many campaigns certainly deserve the attention they receive, and readers will learn a fair bit about modern Kenyan history from it. Maathai clearly had a lot of courage, as well as dedication and perseverance; she refused to let setbacks and failures stop her, whether this meant continuing to agitate after a protest was violently dispersed, pushing on after losing a job, or running for office three times before finally winning. I think activists looking for inspiration will find plenty here.

However, unsurprisingly from a politician, her candor about her adult life is limited. After her divorce as a young mother, the book is very focused on her public life. And whether bullheadedness was simply required to succeed in the ways that she did, or whether she had political reasons to not doubt herself in print, there’s not a lot of self-reflection. She never questions, for instance, whether becoming the head of a woman’s organization despite government opposition – ultimately causing the organization to splinter in two and her half to lose much of its funding – was the right move, or whether perhaps succumbing to pressure to withdraw her candidacy and working through a consensus candidate might have done more good. She glosses over the bit where she drops her kids off at their father’s for six months with no advance warning (it’s unclear whether the kids know how long they’ll be staying, but her ex definitely doesn’t). And I had my doubts about the bit where all the Green Belt Movement staff go on strike over their pay, supposedly all because of the agitation of her treacherous assistant and despite the fact that they’d all understood and accepted the organization’s precarious financial situation. They are grown adults who presumably would need a reason to strike beyond the fact that somebody suggested it.

I don’t actually mean this as a criticism of Maathai: everybody has their flaws, which tend to make people more interesting and certainly more human. However, by the end I felt that an objective biography would present a more complete view of her as both a person and an activist, and without the limitations inherent in Maathai’s public position when she wrote this book. Nevertheless, she seems like an incredible person and I do think this book is worth reading.
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text 2018-03-28 15:49
M. M. Kaye's mystery "series"
Death in the Andamans - M.M. Kaye
Death in Berlin - M.M. Kaye
Death in Zanzibar - M.M. Kaye
Death in Kenya - M.M. Kaye
Death in Kashmir: A Mystery - M.M. Kaye
Death in Cyprus: A Novel - M. M. Kaye

Reading Victoria Holt's India Fan brought to my mind M.M. Kaye, who is best known for her massive, sweeping epic romance of India during the twilight of the British Raj, The Far Pavilions. Along with that book, she wrote two additional pieces of rather massive historical romance – The Shadow of the Moon and Trade Winds. In addition to those three books, she wrote a brief, entertaining series of mysteries set in exotic locations.

 

While this is now nominally marketed as a series (Death In . . . ), each of the books is 100% stand-alone, with different characters entirely. There is a slight overlap between Death In Zanzibar and Trade Winds, which is really only interesting for fans of M.M. Kaye.

 

I remember reading at least Death in Zanzibar and Death in Kenya as a teenager. I first read The Far Pavilions, which was one of my favorite books for many years, probably very soon after it was published in 1978, when I was 12. I would estimate that I took off of my mother’s bookshelf at around the age of 16, because I read a lot of historical romance of varying quality during those years, and had a definite affinity for epic historicals. After reading the three historical romances, I definitely picked up a few of Kaye’s mysteries. The covers would have been very different from Minotaur’s bright colored, almost Picasso-esque covers – something more like this:

 

 

Like Georgette Heyer, who also wrote at least a few mysteries, Kaye seems to be primarily a writer of romance, so all of her mysteries have a strong romantic sub-plot. In each, the main character is a young, unmarried, attractive woman who finds herself embroiled in a murder case in some capacity. These pairings tend to be quite regressive, and often involve the sort of interfering, (some might say controlling) overly-protective male love interest that is seen in other romance novels of the time period (Death in Kenya, the first of the mysteries, was published in 1953, while Death in the Andamans, the last of them, was published in 1960). This can be jarring to readers who’ve grown up with fiction (and reality) where the relationships are far more egalitarian.

 

Kaye had a fascinating life – she was born in Simla, in British India prior to Indian independence – her father was a British officer in the Indian Army. She married an officer in the British army as well, and spent her marriage in 27 different postings over 19 years, many of which she used as settings for her novels. She wrote a multi-part autobiography, which given how fascinating and insightful her fiction is, appears to be well worth checking out.

 

Since 2017, I’ve reread all of Kaye’s crime fiction and enjoyed them all with varying levels of enthusiasm. Over time, I’m sure that I will get reviews posted for all of them – they are well worth reading for people who enjoy romantic mysteries set in exotic, faraway places.

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quote 2017-07-16 08:18
Talent is universal, but opportunity is not.

Odede, Kennedy, and Jessica Posner. Find Me Unafraid: Love, Loss, and Hope in an African Slum. N.p.: Ecco, 2015. 13 Oct. 2015. Web.

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review 2017-06-12 05:11
Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Infidel - Ayaan Hirsi Ali

This is a fascinating memoir from an impressive author. Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia; just a generation before, her family were nomadic herders. She spent her early years in Somalia before her father’s political involvement forced the family to flee; she and her siblings spent their teenage years in Kenya, where the author briefly joined the Muslim Brotherhood while her mother longed for the “pure” Islam of Saudi Arabia. Her family was troubled to say the least, though she doesn’t quite seem to blame either of her parents. As the region became even less stable in the early 90s, her father decided to save her by arranging her an unwanted marriage, at age 22, to a Somali man in Canada seeking a traditional Somali wife. But the author managed to escape and claim asylum in Holland, where she worked, educated herself and went to college for political science. Her intellectual awakening distanced her from Islam, and she eventually became a member of Parliament, promoting rights for Muslim women and a greater integration of immigrants into Dutch society. Proving her point, this outspokenness provoked a violent response.

As a piece of literature, this is quite good. The author writes well; it’s a compelling story and written with the sort of physical and emotional detail that promotes a high level of engagement from the reader. At times it’s downright dramatic. Although the author is political, it never reads like a public relations piece; she’s no angel here, and there are no clear villains. She does portray herself as a victim rather often, but this rarely seems related to any political agenda; her mother is sometimes abusive, but the council of elders convened to determine the legitimacy of her leaving her husband respects her decision. There are some tough scenes in this book – the author and her sister undergo female genital mutilation early on, for instance – but life goes on and people can’t simply suffer all the time; my concern that the book would read as a catalogue of atrocity turned out to be unfounded. The author has a strong viewpoint, yes, but people are complicated and this book shows that, rather than attempting to reduce all of life to a political agenda. You could read this as fiction and come away satisfied.

Nevertheless, the author is a political figure, accounting for much of the polarized reaction to this book; I think much of the negativity comes from information outside its pages, and a brief perusal of her Twitter feed explains why. At the time period covered in this book – when the author is a student and a young politician – she’s wrestling with big questions and fighting for reforms that could make life better for Muslim immigrants in Holland: for instance, by ending funding for religious schools, as Muslim schools tend to focus on memorization and obedience rather than real learning. And she’s frustrated by the way Dutch values of toleration can prevent a response to abuse among Muslim immigrants. She calls for reform in Islam, so that people can question its tenets without being subject to violence.

But the threats she receives (not to mention the brutal murder of a filmmaker with whom she makes a short piece questioning Islam’s demands for submission) and the reluctance of non-Muslims to believe how bad things can get seem to push her toward hatred of Islam as a whole. We see a little of that in the book: her efforts to convince the public of social problems among Muslim immigrants sometimes seem more geared toward proving that Islam is a problem than finding practical solutions. Her public statements now seem even more slanted in that direction (though she is working in the U.S. to increase penalties for FGM, for instance). I respect her strength and dedication, and generally agree with her critiques of the Muslim world. But promoting divisiveness is a terrible idea, and I’m concerned that may be the primary effect of her advocacy. This isn’t a criticism of the book, necessarily; if anything, it shows how honestly the author comes by her opinions.

In summary, then: this is an excellent story, well worth reading. It is not, for the most part, a political book, and I don’t judge it Islamophobic, defining Islamophobia as prejudice toward individual Muslims or a crusade against Islam while knowing little about it. It made me think, and that’s a strength in any book.

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review 2016-08-04 13:59
4****
When the Smoke Clears (Interracial Firefighter Romance) - Kenya Wright,Christine Rice
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