Friday, October 30, 2009

An Expensive Education

Book review of a novel by Nick McDonell, Atlantic Monthly Press, NY, 2009.

The action in this novel unrolls in East Africa and Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is kind of an odd amalgam, but the story moves on in a satisfactory fashion and keeps the reader engaged.

Misperception, trust and betrayal are the core issues investigated. The tale begins with an armed attack on a Somali village that the protagonist, a newly minted CIA officer, seems to have unwontedly instigated. Following is a series of intrigues as he and others try to unravel the mystery of the motives for the massacre and who did it. Other characters include a Harvard academic, a brilliant Somali student - who happens to have had relatives in the village Рhis society coed girl friend, a jaundiced CIA chief and a panoply of various hangers-on. Although some characters have substance to them, most are fairly shallow as befits the speedy pace of the story. I thought the hero was a bit too perfect. His basic flaw was naivet̩.

On the one hand the novel is a spy thriller, but on another it is a satirical portrayal of Harvard – its politics, student life, clubs and old boy networks. As such the book appeals to Harvard insiders, but these aspects of it leave the rest of us a bit perplexed. The East African scenario appealed to me and by and large I found descriptions accurate. Author McDonell noted in a forward that he distorted tribes and geography, which he indeed did; shrinking distances and using wrong names for people of this or that tribe. I doubt, however, that many readers will catch these discrepancies. In one instance, however, he relates an incident in Nairobi and later refers to it as having occurred in Khartoum. Maybe he was just trying to see if we were alert?

Don’t read this book for political insight into the complex politics of terrorism, Somalia or Kenya. Nor should you believe that it accurately reflects how the CIA operates. Yet with those disclaimers, it remains a good yarn.

Wildflower - An Extraordinary Life and Untimely Death in Africa

Book review of a biography by Mark Seal,Random House, NY, 2009.

The sub-title pretty well says it all; another vibrant, activist, female conservationist murdered by parties unknown - presumably because she thwarted their economic/political interests. Film maker and conservationist Joan Root’s story is a sad one from beginning to end and the maudlin aspects of it are drawn out by author Seal. Her life story has soap operatic aspects which Seal milked for all they’re worth.

Without doubt Ms. Root’s untimely demise – she was murdered in her bedroom by contract killers in early 2006 – provides the premise and the denouement for the biography that Seal assembled. Recounted in detail, Seal described Joan as a gentle shy soul who searched for meaning and mission in life. Initially she found both in marriage to Alan Root. An indispensable partner she collaborated with him in the production of a long list of wildlife films that patiently and conscientiously detailed animals and events. Films included studies of lions, hippos, termites, gorillas, hornbills in a baobab tree, a balloon over Kilimanjaro and a dry season. The list goes on, but Joan was the producer, the organizer and the muse that kindled Alan’s filmmaking genius. The two won worldwide renown.

Despite their professional collaboration, after some years, Alan’s wandering eye led him to another woman. Abandonment – which was never total as the two continued to work together for a time and communicated for years afterwards - sent Joan into a downward spiral. She only rallied when she found a new mission: saving Lake Naivasha from the scourge of fish and animal poaching and pollution from Kenya’s burgeoning flower industry. Joan’s 88 acre estate on the lake was threatened by interlopers and fish poachers in the 1990s and 2000s as the population of the area exploded on account of the rapid expansion of the flower industry. Although the hot houses and intensely cultivated fields flushed chemical runoff into the lake, it was really the quintupled human population that pressured the lake. Excrement from pit latrines found its way into the water table, but non-employed young men (women were preferred by the flower growers for their more delicate fingers) found outlets in seining illegally for the smallest fish, poaching wild animals that traditionally visited the lake and in crime. The European estates that ringed the lake were trespassed upon and targeted.

Joan’s efforts to halt these threats to “her” lake (and property) drew her into a whirlpool of conspiracy and quasi-legal violence designed to reduce illegal activities. Clearly (in retrospect) Joan was in over her head. Instead of managing the process she became swept up in it. Ultimately as it all rotted around her, she became its victim. Should that have happened? Of course not, author Seal and Joan’s friends all offer testimony to that effect. The nobleness of her cause notwithstanding, left unanswered and unaddressed is whether mzungus like Joan should try to save Kenya from itself?

The book is an entertaining read, even though the outcome is known before the first chapter. No one has anything bad to say about Joan, but her letters and diaries reveal a bit more of her inner thoughts. I found lots of repetition about her character, but little insight into how she really functioned. She obviously did not handle men very well. Alan first and then vigilante chief David Chege walked all over her.

Author Mark Seal is a journalist and the book is, in fact, an expansion of an article written for Vanity Fair. It reads like that. It is laudatory, uncritical and designed to elicit maximum sympathy. Despite accolades to a fact checker in the acknowledgements, the reputable checker missed the evolution of Tanganyika. The book says that it is now divided into Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi…tsk, tsk.