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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 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 2016-07-10 19:03
City of Thorns by Ben Rawlence
City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp - Ben Rawlence

This is a good book on an important topic. Dadaab is an enormous refugee camp with several hundred thousand residents, located in a desert area of Kenya near the border with Somalia. For nearly 25 years, Somalis fleeing civil war and famine at home have come to the camp – at this point, an entire generation has grown up there (and roughly 60% of the residents are children). Dadaab is mostly funded through foreign aid, but Kenya has always wanted rid of the refugees and made repeated attempts to repatriate them to the still war-torn Somalia. Refugees are not allowed to hold official jobs, for fear they’ll take them from Kenyans – the exception being “incentive” work, for tiny stipends – nor can they legally enter Kenya proper, so many spend their lives dreaming of being selected for resettlement abroad.

Rawlence followed a dozen or so camp residents for about five years, from 2010 to 2015, giving readers a window on how people make their lives in the camp and the impact of major events. Those we see the most of are young people who grew up there – Nisho, who works as a porter in the marketplace; Tawane, a youth leader aiming for a political future; and Kheyro, one of the few young people in Dadaab to pursue education – as well as Guled, who flees Somalia as a teenager after being briefly conscripted into al-Shabaab. Through their stories and others, the book provides a real sense of life in the camps, from the initial arrival to those who marry and start a family. (Which sounds like a terrible idea, but these are people whose lives have always been precarious.) One young man does make it to Nairobi, only to find life there no more secure than in Dadaab; meanwhile, a young couple faces death threats from both communities because she’s Somali and he’s a member of the camp’s tiny Sudanese minority.

This sort of material is almost guaranteed to keep readers’ interest, and though it’s certainly heavy I did not find it overwhelming; the individuals followed meet with successes as well as difficulties. For the most part it’s quite a readable book, written in a journalistic style, though the author could do with brushing up on his comma placement, which makes some sentences difficult to understand. And the story occasionally bogs down; over the course of several years, at times major events provide a common thread in everyone’s lives, while at other times the stories are quite disparate and the author focuses in on mundane events (presumably those he happened to witness). But he does a good job of weaving facts and statistics into the stories, and occasionally steps away from his subjects' experiences to document major events impacting the camps (such as the mass shooting at a Nairobi mall, which was wrongly blamed on refugees). Finally, while the author renders his subjects’ circumstances vividly, they aren’t completely fleshed-out as individuals, and I wondered how much language and cultural barriers (the author does not speak Somali) interfered. Rawlence also does not discuss how he selected his subjects; most of the book is spent with men, which does not reflect the camps as a whole, and I wondered what role Somali culture played in that choice.

Overall though, this is an important subject, and reading this book is a great way for those of us who live worlds away from Dadaab to get a sense of the human stories behind the headlines. I recommend it.

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review 2014-03-16 02:31
The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed
The Orchard of Lost Souls: A Novel - Nadifa Mohamed

This book has a fascinating setting: Somalia in the 1980s. The country had a nominally Communist military dictatorship, under attack by rebel forces, and with civilians caught in the middle; this was before Somalia descended into the chaos of today, but we see those later troubles foreshadowed by the events of this book.

The Orchard of Lost Souls follows three main characters: Deqo, an orphan girl raised in a refugee camp, now living on the streets of Hargeisa; Kawsar, a traditional widow, bedridden and grieving for her daughter; and Filsan, a soldier struggling to distinguish herself. The pace is quick and their stories interesting: it isn’t a light read, but it is a fast one. There is a good sense of place, and you’ll learn some things about Somalia without feeling that you’re being taught a history lesson.

Unfortunately, the protagonists themselves are generic and lacking in complexity, defined almost entirely by their circumstances. Deqo is a standard child character, and when she steps out of that mold, it tends to be unconvincing; for instance, when entering an abandoned, luxurious home for the first time, this 9-year-old's first act is to.... wash the dishes? Kawsar is passive, speaking up only at the worst possible moments. Filsan was the character who initially interested me most, as a woman in the military of a traditional patriarchal society, but we don’t see much more of her situation than her annoyance at guys checking her out. And Filsan herself turns out to be a typical insecure and emotional female protagonist, and a bad soldier; her inevitable realizations about the regime are rushed and muddled by an awkward romantic subplot.

For me, then, this book proved mediocre, though it kept my attention while reading; the atrocities the characters witness (particularly one scene in a hospital near the end) are far more memorable than the characters themselves. Fans of popular fiction will likely find much here to appreciate, however. If you like this, you will probably also enjoy Mengiste's Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, and vice versa.


Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book through a Goodreads giveaway.

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review 2013-09-17 00:00
A House in the Sky: A Memoir
A House in the Sky: A Memoir - 'Amanda Lindhout', 'Sara Corbett'

Through A House in the Sky you vicariously experience being a hostage.

Please start by carefully reading the GR book description. It is accurate and to the point:


"The dramatic and redemptive memoir of a woman whose curiosity led her to the world’s most beautiful and remote places, its most imperiled and perilous countries, and then into fifteen months of harrowing captivity—an exquisitely written story of courage, resilience, and grace.

As a child, Amanda Lindhout escaped a violent household by paging through issues of National Geographic and imagining herself in its exotic locales. At the age of nineteen, working as a cocktail waitress in Calgary, Alberta, she began saving her tips so she could travel the globe. Aspiring to understand the world and live a significant life, she backpacked through Latin America, Laos, Bangladesh, and India, and emboldened by each adventure, went on to Sudan, Syria, and Pakistan. In war-ridden Afghanistan and Iraq she carved out a fledgling career as a television reporter. And then, in August 2008, she traveled to Somalia—“the most dangerous place on earth.” On her fourth day, she was abducted by a group of masked men along a dusty road.

Held hostage for 460 days, Amanda converts to Islam as a survival tactic, receives “wife lessons” from one of her captors, and risks a daring escape. Moved between a series of abandoned houses in the desert, she survives on memory—every lush detail of the world she experienced in her life before captivity—and on strategy, fortitude, and hope. When she is most desperate, she visits a house in the sky, high above the woman kept in chains, in the dark, being tortured.

Vivid and suspenseful, as artfully written as the finest novel, A House in the Sky is the searingly intimate story of an intrepid young woman and her search for compassion in the face of unimaginable adversity



What can I add? The book is both well written and well laid out. What the author lived through is not sensationalized and I admire Amanda Lindhout for that. The book is co-authored by Sara Corbett. Together the two have written a very, very good book. It is not an easy book to read. By starting with Amanda's troubled family circumstances the reader grasps where she is coming from and why she makes the choices she makes. Some are extremely foolish, but don't we all?

460 days, that is how long she was held hostage. I cannot describe as well as the author does herself her h-o-r-r-i-b-l-e experience. Everything goes from bad to worse. Yes, she is raped, repeatedly! And tortured. You might as well know that before you start. But absolutely none of the events are described in a sensational manner. She describes all with grace. I cannot emphasize this enough.

Islamic fundamentalists do this to her. This made me very, very mad. I am mad at all that is done in the name of religion. I am not willing to point a finger at Islam. Historically people of all religions under a guise of sweet words do the unforgivable. Some people did help Amanda. I am primarily thinking in this case of one wonderful Somali woman. I have to hang on to what that one woman did to not lose all faith in humankind. I recommend this book very highly. It needs to be read.

I really enjoyed the audiobook narration by Amanda, the one who lived through these events. OK, I have not met her in person but at least I have heard her voice. It is not pretentious. She has learned from her mistakes and gone forward with such amazing strength. I admire her tremendously.

I was using a map from National Geographic while I listened to this. Both Amanda and I love that magazine!

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