Cozy Nook of Books

I’ve created this page to discuss the books that I have read during my travel journeys. I believe that it is important to read different types of literature to gain insight into the culture that I am in. Literature transmits knowledge, practices, and radical ideas about social life with a special nuance. I feel that through reading I have a chance to truly ponder over the topics that are introduced and discussed. To me, reading is one of life’s greatest adventures.

Résistance by Agnes Humbert and translated by Barbara Mellor
I bought this book in Canada during a quiet Sunday afternoon putzing around the Chapters on Whyte Avenue in Edmonton. I love memoirs and as fellow diarist, I was intrigued to read a memoir in this format that had just been translated into English from French. I originally bought this book to read in Belgium since it is about WWII, but for some reason I didn’t really begin it until I was just about to leave for Kenya.

This book is an extremely moving account of a strong, intelligent woman (an Art Historian!) and her involvement in the French Resistance and then her incarceration in labour camps until the end of the war. The format of the book is also unique because she recorded her involvement in the creation of the newsletter “Résistance” until her arrest by the Gestapo in great detail. The bulk of the book is about her imprisonment and is written from memory directly following her return to France after the war had ended. The memoir then goes back to the original diary form during her participation in organization of food banks and other support services during the last days of the war in Germany. I find this format very thought-provoking when considering the topic of personal memory and its massive influence on documented history. The afterword discusses that it is not clear if Humbert wrote her memoir true to fact; but the text is so moving that this debate is fairly irrelevant to me. In addition to her reputation as an excellent art historian, her experience corroborates with other prisoner’s memoirs of various labour camps so I believe that it is a truthful account. It is clear from her writing that Humbert is a critical thinker and has complex and developed political opinions. She observed her situation with keen insight that I found very thoughtful. Her descriptions of her surroundings are vivid and memorable, which make “Résistance” such a moving memoir.

Personally, my first week in Kenya was one of the most challenging I have ever had and there were moments I was feeling a bit sorry for myself. I would spend a quiet moment by myself reading this book and realized that I had very little to complain about and things could be much worse. Usually reading something so heavy would be depressing in a new city where I have few friends and everything is foreign and a bit strange but I found it comforting. It successfully brought me back to the right frame of mind to approach my 3 months in Kenya with optimism instead of apprehension.

FatBoy and the Dancing Ladies by Michael Holman
I was introduced this book by my friend and roomie Jessica, who said that she really enjoyed it and it was a pretty quick read. I was eager to read a fiction novel about the current situation in Kenya, and it was a satire to boot! Perfect! The author, Michael Holman, had lived in Africa for a several years and was the editor for the African section of the Financial Times. In “Fatboy and the Dancing Ladies” he has delivered a witty and fascinating analysis of Kenya and East Africa. He mentions a variety of issues that are very current for the region and he has an interesting point of view regarding development and aid in East Africa. I got about 3/4’s through this book and had a lot of questions about development and its effects on Africa: is actually effective or is it the 21st century version of colonialism? And I haven’t decided. But the tone of the book is so cynical towards aid that I ended up needling Jess for some answers as she has worked in development for a few years now and she has studied development academically. Basically she told me that the dynamics of right and wrong and the ‘shades of grey’ that are ever-present create interesting situations for those who pursue development as a career. Previously she took an illuminating class where her prof asked her “What is development?” The class discussion unpacked a whole variety of issues regarding race, gender, socio-economic status, thrill-seeker personalities, economic sustainability, crisis intervention… which all lead to the giant, complicated spiderweb that is Development.

After reading this book and considering what I learnt from the conversations that resulted, I think it opened my eyes to the problems that are still present in the Africa and while it is impossible to look at them without cynicism over time it is clear that there is still optimism that eventually things will change for the better. I think that from the discussions I have had so far about development that I might not have the personality to dedicate my career to development, but I would like the pursue a career that has opportunities to positively affect the global community. This novel is a wonderful fast-paced read with a lot of action, great descriptions of a fictional Nairobi, and witty banter between characters culminating to provide great insight into the Kenyan Expat society. I definitely enjoyed it and recommend to check his books out (I’m going to read another one fo sho’). For more insight into the wild & wacky world of development expats check out: http://stuffexpataidworkerslike.com

28: Stories of AIDS in Africa by Stephanie Nolan
My roommate Nadia brought this book with her and let me borrow it from her. I read this book for the first time about 4 years prior to coming here. The 20 year old who who bought this book never would have guessed that at 24 she would be living in Kenya reading the same book. When I bought “28”, I was looking to expand my horizons on the big issues in the world. I had a hunger to travel and discover the world but I honestly never thought I would be brave enough to actually go to Africa. At that time, I definitely had my own misperceptions (most likely due to those pesky stereotypes) about HIV/AIDS in Africa and didn’t understand how something could spread so rapidly through the population. Stephanie Nolan’s approach of using 28 personal stories of how various individual lives in Africa have been impacted by HIV/AIDS is powerful; the reader is able to identify with each of the fascinating lives to they point that they are no longer isolated to one single continent. “28” is an excellent read for someone who is looking to increase their awareness on HIV/AIDS because it is written to be accessible and personal; in addition to being well-researched, the issues are thoughtfully analyzed by Nolan herself.

Comparing my 1st reading of “28” to my 2nd read is similar to watching an epic movie like “Shutter Island” on a 36″ TV and then seeing the same movie 4 years later on a 52″ big screen in high definition. Living here hasn’t increased my knowledge on HIV/AIDS specifically but I have developed a better understanding of the social, economic, and political issues that have contributed to the epidemic.

Stephanie Nolan is a renowned journalist and author who is writing articles for the Globe & Mail. She is currently working in Pakistan (I know this because I follow her on twitter). A couple of weeks ago I had mentioned on twitter that I was re-reading her book and she actually replied to me, I was thrilled! It completely made my day; a small interaction with a great writer that I respect and admire. Check out her website!

Emergency Sex: And Other Desperate Measures by Kenneth Cain, Heidi Postlewait, and Andrew Thomson
My roomie Sabrina bought this book recently and I started to flip through it while making a tomato bacon sandwich. I got completely sucked in and was thisclose to burning my bacon. The rain on Sunday had foiled my plans to hike up Mt. Longonot so I spent the day on the couch completely immersed in this book. I ended up finishing it Monday evening by candlelight since our power has been out for 35 hours so far (as of Tuesday morning).

“Emergency Sex”, is about 3 young UN employees who immerse themselves in the major UN peacekeeping missions in the 1990’s. Cain is a Harvard educated lawyer who doesn’t want to waste his youth in a stuffy legal firm in the US, Thomson is a New Zealand doctor who is dedicated to serving others, and Heidi is a divorcée looking for a paycheck, unable to keep up with rent on her own with her measly social work salary. All three characters converge in Cambodia for a peacekeeping mission where they focus their efforts to restore peace after years of civil war by arranging a democratic election and trying to protect human rights. Their bond of friendship proves to be strong and helps them survive various other missions in Rwanda, Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, and Liberia.

I loved this book because it provides 3 different perspectives on living in an area of conflict. The authors try to come to terms with their emotional reactions and changing intellectual ideals that result from what they see during their missions in war zones. Each author’s account is approachable, personal, and engaging. Their descriptions give the reader insight into UN expat lifestyle and their own personal motives about getting involved in such demanding work. I found that I was able to identify with the authors because of their descriptions of the challenge of adjusting to new places and living conditions because it can be very exciting one day to very challenging the next. Cain and Thomson discuss their criticism of UN initiatives in the 1990’s, which are extremely interesting considering their experience in the most critical peacekeeping zones such as Rwanda, Haiti, Somalia, and Bosnia. I highly recommend this book if you are looking for a first person commentary about expat life and peacekeeping experiences; as well as adventure, confusion, and trying to find your spot in the world.

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