Live from Cairo — Ian Bassingthwaighte’s Juxtaposes the Middle East’s Refugee Crisis with Egypt’s 2011 Revolution

Live from Cairo features sharply drawn youngish adults confronting the Middle East’s refugee crisis in the midst of Egypt’s revolution in 2011.  Each of Ian Bassingthwaighte’s characters tries to pursue and protect her or his own agenda in the face of utter confusion and inescapable misery.  Charlie and Aos, the legal aid workers, together with Hana, the Iraqi-American resettlement officer, combine romantic idealism and a sense of purpose with jaded exhaustion and an overarching hopelessness.   They also share some personal spark impelling them to go rogue.  Dahlia, Omran and the other refugees suffer from terrible past trauma and find themselves trapped in a bleak and inhuman refugee crisis.  Desperate as their situations are, the refugees persist in their struggle to maintain personal relationships and care for each other.  Red tape, violence and mind-numbing uncertainty are the enemies.  

Live from Cairo‘s premise is reminiscent of the film Casablanca in that an interesting assortment of desperate individuals find itself trapped in a corrupt, dangerous place rocked by trauma and violence.  The tense mix of fear and personal desire in an unforgiving environment where everything keeps changing is not quite as horrific as it sounds, because, like Casablanca, there are some deft comic aspects to the characters and the situations.  I found myself so invested in these characters that I really needed to now what would happen to them and how they would react.

I particularly admired the way in which Bassingthwaite managed to provide so much information about a significant number of characters in his brief and highly active narrative.  The reader’s situation mirrors that of the novel’s characters, who have to pick up information about each other through short bursts of information and relatively brief encounters.  Like the characters, the reader also has to decide quickly who is trustworthy.  The dialog between characters is particularly sharp and advances the narrative brilliantly.

I recommend this novel as highly informative and entertaining all at the same time.


The Queen of Katwe — The Improbable Story of a Ugandan Chess Champion

Before it was a successful Disney movie (which I have yet to see), The Queen of Katwe was a book by Tim Crothers.  Crothers initially came to Uganda to do a story on Phiona Mutesi, an impoverished teenager from the slums of Katwe who had become a chess champion through an improable series of events.  Crothers correctly recognized that Phiona’s story deserved a book, and he has written a fine one.  The Queen of Katwe does an excellent job of filling in the back story of Phiona’s family, as well as the story of Robert Katende, her coach and mentor.  

Crothers does the research and asks the fundamental questions — how and why does a barely literate young girl from one of the worst slums in the entire world creep into the world of chess and use it to launch a different life?  There is no satisfactory answer.  Despite Crothers’ diligent interviews of Phiona and the people around her, Phiona remains an inigma.  What is clear, however, is that many different people contributed one way or another along the way.  There is Katende, who couldn’t get a job as an engineer after he managed to graduate from university but then somehow lucked into a job with a Christian philanthropic community because of his soccer skills and then got the idea to teach a unlikely group of slum kids chess.  (Phiona wasn’t the only impoverished, hungry child to benefit from Katende’s inspired decision to teach kids who could barely read the fundamentals of chess.). Phiona’s impoverished family helped, too. Her mother calculated that it was better for her children to attend chess classes and get something to eat there than to earn a pittance in the marketplace.  It was also no small thing that Phiona’s  brother let her tag along.  Fundamentally, at important times, there were people who looked out for Phiona as she learned chess and as her success with chess led to her engagement with the world outside Katwe.  The list of helpers and mentors goes on, but ultimately Phiona was the one who decided to follow her brother to Katende’s class and to dig in and learn the game.   Other Katwa kids may have been equally diligent, but Phiona had a gift.

This is an inspiring book.  Even if Phiona remains an unknowable figure, her story and her unprecedented accomplishments are completely fascinating.  I was left wanting to know what happens next in her life.  (Wikipedia was moderately helpful here, so we will keep contributing!)

Finally, I really appreciated the author’s ability to take a back seat in his interviews, as well as his diligent efforts to talk to so many people and to keep trying to find out more about Phiona.  Also, as Crothers notes, the book could never have happened if Robert Katende hadn’t attended the bulk of the interviews to provide translations skills.  So kudos to Katende as well!

Doing Dangerously Well – A Scary/Funny Novel about Water, Corruption and International Interference in Nigeria



This is a great book!  For no particular reason except my obsessive alphabetical-by-author selection process, I recently picked up and devoured Carole Enahoro’s 2010 over-the-top novel Doing Dangerously Well.   This chillingly funny book concerns the exploits and machinations of a sleazy bunch of characters determined to sew up and profit from monopolizing Nigeria’s water supply.  There are the corrupt, paranoid politicians on the ground in Nigeria and then there are the corporate sharks of a huge, blatantly corrupt American conglomerate.  On both sides of the ocean, the parties are so busy fighting among themselves that they fail to account for outside opposition to their overall plan.  Mary and Barbara Glass, two sisters on opposite pages about everything except for the glee they each share in tromping  the other, provide a crazy theme of family failure to complete this oddball satire about the deadly business of access to water.  You really need to read this book.  It is just amazing!

Carole Enahoro, the author, has a Nigerian father and an English mother, and has grown up in Nigeria, Britain and Canada.  In addition to her parental and geographic diversity, Enahoro, has pursued a wide range of interests, including teaching geography at the the University of London and working in television.  At the time this book was published, she was working on a PhD in spatial practice, power and satire in Nigeria’s capital.  Her diverse talents are brilliantly employed in this novel and I really hope she writes another one.  Soon.  In the meantime, someone really needs to make a movie out of this.  The part of over-the-top Barbara is completely made for Toni Collette, and Julia Roberts would have a blast as the evil corporate sister.  

Moving Memoir of Growing Up in Colonial Kenya During the Mau Mau Revolt


In the House of the Interpreter is a beautiful coming of age memoir by Ngugi Wa Thiong’O, a famous Kenyan novelist, poet, playwright and critic.  Although the book describes only a brief period in the author’s life, it does an outstanding job of tracking his intellectual development and showing how he came to view himself in his evolving society.  The drama of the story is greatly enhanced by the fact that it is set during a violent, fascinating period, the mid 1950’s when the Mau Mau Revolt rocked the British Empire’s final days of colonial rule of Kenya.

Despite extreme poverty and an extremely volatile political environment, the teenaged author managed to leave his village and attend an African boarding school.  It was a tough school, run by an Englishman who saw his mission in life as serving Christ and educating African youth.  Fortuitously, the school provided Ngugi with a  remarkable haven from outside violence and profoundly affected and nourished his intellectual development.  An avid and determined scholar, even as a teenager, Ngugi actively and consciously engaged with others, both within and without the school’s community during this tremendously tumultuous time.

In piercing contrast, outside the school’s grounds, Kenya was in turmoil.  England was taking increasingly brutal measures to hold on to its colony in the face of the MauMau Revolt.  Though not himself overtly political,  Ngugi faced all sort of difficulties and repeated corruption just getting to and from school.  His brother, who was part of the Mau Mau forces was in hiding andresistance was ultimately imprisoned.  Ngugi’s own  efforts to stay away from the fray were unsuccessful, and he was swept up in the political mess.

I highly recommend this book, which does a remarkable job of charting a budding author’s awareness of his country’s struggle for independence even as he deals with his own struggles to get an education and survive.