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review 2017-07-10 04:44
Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder
Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness - Tracy Kidder

This is a readable but mediocre book that gets a lot of praise because it’s about an impressive person and a tragic topic. Deogratias grew up in rural Burundi with few advantages, but made it to medical school, until he got caught up in the genocide in Rwanda and Burundi in 1993. A friend helped him flee to New York City, where despite a job delivering groceries he found himself homeless at first, until making friends who helped him get back on his feet. He then went to college and medical school in the U.S., and returned to Burundi to set up clinics for people with no access to health care.

 

This book reminds me of Ashley’s War, in that both are about people and subjects that absolutely deserve a book, but their authors sell them short. Kidder’s writing feels superficial throughout. From early on I had the impression that he was drawn to Deo but never really understood him (or perhaps Deo wasn’t willing or able to open up to the extent an author would need to write a biography that appears to be based mostly on his own disclosures), and so was able to relate the facts but only on the surface level. This becomes even more apparent in the second half of the book, when Kidder accompanies Deo on one of his trips back to Burundi. They visit numerous memorials and sites from Deo’s past, and Kidder describes how Deo reacts, but in the end we get more of Kidder’s feelings about the trip than Deo’s.

 

Though this is primarily a biography, we do get some information about the genocide in Rwanda and Burundi as well, along with a brief overview of the countries’ history. Though, again, this feels superficial, it’s an adequate starting point and is interesting for a reader with relatively little knowledge of the area. Especially interesting is Deo’s theory that the genocide was made possible in large part by structural violence – that when everyday life is full of fatal illness and injury, hunger, violence at home and at school, and little opportunity to improve one’s lot in life, people perceive the value of their own lives as low and therefore value others’ even less. Also interesting is the fact that, although westerners reading about the genocide assume Hutu and Tutsi are clearly definable ethnic groups, the reality seems to be anything but; these are apparently social groups more than anything else, and it appears Deo isn’t alone in being unable to tell the difference.

 

At any rate, this is a very readable book, not a bad choice for those who are interested in the topic. (It’s also worth pointing out, for those unsure about whether they can handle a book about genocide, that only one 35-page chapter is all about that; most of the book is about Deo’s life before and after, and about Kidder spending time with Deo and the people who helped him in New York.) But I’m underwhelmed by Kidder’s writing and likely won’t recommend this to others.

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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 2017-05-19 13:32
Podcast #46 is up!
Njinga of Angola: Africa’s Warrior Queen - Linda M. Heywood

My forty-sixth podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it I interview Linda Heywood about her new biography of Ninjinga of Ndongo and Matamba, one of the badass women rulers of the early modern world. Enjoy!

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review 2017-05-14 00:03
Shadow by Marcia Brown
Shadow - Blaise Cendrars,Marcia Brown

Genre:  Fantasy / Africa ./ Folktale / Horror


Year Published: 1982

 

Year Read:  2010

 

Publisher:   Charles Scribner's Sons

 

 

Shadow

“Shadow” is a Caldecott Medal award winning book by Marcia Brown and it is about what shadows do around people and what they do when they are not looking. “Shadow” may be a bit scary for smaller children, but it is truly a mesmerizing book that children would enjoy for many years.

Marcia Brown has wonderfully given a vivid description of what shadows do and what they are like and put the description of shadows in a poetic format and Marcia Brown does a great job at making shadows seem so mysterious as they constantly follow people around in ghostly figures. Marcia Brown’s illustrations are truly eerie yet creative as the people in the book are drawn as black shadows while the shadows themselves are drawn as white ghostly figures following the shadowed characters, however, there are some shadows that are dark figures such as the shadow coming out of the ash from the fire. The images perfectly blend color and black and white to bring out a more effective look at the world of shadows such as putting shadowed figures against colorful mountainsides or forests.

Shadow

Parents should know that there are some scary images in this book which involves images of the shadows taking frightening shapes such as one shadow wearing a very frightening mask and another large shadow that has ash for eyes and is walking on four wobbly legs. Many small children would also be frighten about the idea that shadows can come to life when they least expect it and it might cause many small children to not go to sleep at night because they might be afraid of their shadows coming to life to get them. Parents need to explain to their children that shadows do not come alive and they are apart of people.

“Shadow” is a brilliant book that takes on the views of the mysterious world of shadows and it will have many children mesmerized for many years. I would recommend this book to children ages six and up since the images are truly frightening and smaller children might be frightened at the idea that shadows come to life in this book.


Review is also on: Rabbit Ears Book Blog

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review 2017-04-29 04:27
THE BAD-ASS LIBRARIANS OF TIMBUKTU by Joshua Hammer
The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts - Joshua Hammer

The title is a little misleading. While this does deal with the collection of the ancient manuscripts hidden in and around Timbuktu and through Mali, it deals more with the cultural and social history of Timbuktu as well as current events.

The story of the manuscripts is interesting--how they were gotten, preserved, hidden from the jihadists, removed from Timbuktu, and saved. The cultural history of the area and the manuscripts was more interesting. I learned a lot. The current history of the area was extremely interesting. This book opened my eyes to so much. This is only a drop of what I don't know. It makes me want to read more about African history, colonialism in Africa, the French Foreign Legion, whatever more whets my appetite to learn.
 

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