Say Ah…zerbaijan!

A couple of weeks ago I came across a job posting that caught my eye. It was exactly what I want to do, and I was very well qualified for it – except for one thing: you had to be fluent in Azerbaijani.

Hmm. Don’t think I’ll be able to fake that one!

As I talked myself down from how *perfect* that job would have been, and how *perfect* I was for it,  I realized how much I don’t know about Azerbaijan.

Lanscape of the coastline of Baku, Azerbaijan.So, it became the focus of my World of Books reading list! And, wow, I have not been disappointed! I have had a great time with literature set in the area and have learned so much! And that is exactly why I have this crazy goal!

The first book I didn’t technically read – I listened to it on CD during a drive from Ohio. The book is Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon.

If you’ve never read anything from Chabon, you must. His prose is wonderful – the kind that makes you sit up a little straighter and fall in love with words all over again. And listening to Andre Braugher read it makes it especially delectable!

The story itself is set around 950 AD, and only partially in Azerbaijan. The plot takes the main characters on both sides of the Caspian and Black Seas. I can’t say that I necessarily learned specifics about the culture or lives of Azeris, but I definitely got a solid feel for just how central the region is – at the crossroads between East and West.

The story itself is wild and wildly entertaining. I will surely pick up more work from Michael Chabon. It was a great introduction to the region, if only because it was fun and gave a general sense of things, albeit 1000 years ago…

Digitizing books, one word at a time

(Thanks to Marty Kearns from Green Media Toolshed and Netcentric Campaigns for bringing this to my attention!)

The need to digitize books goes beyond being able to put them on your Kindle. People with various disabilities (not just sight-related) use on screen readers and other audio tools for school, work and pleasure. But the availability of books in digital format can be limited.

In this very interesting video, Carnegie Mellon University professor Luis von Ahn explains how he is using the brain power of you and me to help digitize books, one word at a time, through a program he calls ReCaptcha.

Book Review: The Joys of Motherhood

The Joys of Motherhood, Buchi Emecheta

I picked up this book because it is listed in the reading material for the MIT Open Course Ware‘s class, Gender, Power and International Development. I am slowly working through this course and would love to hear from anyone else who has gone through it, either on campus or online.

From the inside flap:
“After a childless first marriage Nnu Ego, the daughter of a Nigerian chief, is sent from her village to Lagos to marry Nnaife Owulum who works as a laundry man for an English couple. Nnaife is a weak man and the adjustment to urban living is a painful one for Nnu Ego. Her life becomes an unceasing struggle to maintain her family. Through periods of extreme hardship and deprivation, amid more intense by Nnaife’s absence during WWII, Nnu Ego is sustained by the bright future she anticipates for her children when they will be able to support her. However, the traditions she has fought to uphold and the family ties she has always honored are but an anachronism for her children:Nnu Ego is forced to live out her days alone.

‘The Joys of Motherhood’ is more than just a story of Nnu Ego and her family, however. We see Nigeria as it tries to catch up with the twentieth century, a Nigeria rocked by colonialism, WWII, and the general encroachment of the modern western world on a traditional African one. [It] has a startling immediacy and an ominous significance for us all.”

My $.02:

I found this to be a very interesting and enlightening read. There are many books that will give you an idea of what colonialism looked like in Africa, but this gives a rare, on the ground, inside look from a woman’s perspective. Nnu Ego is fiercely fighting to preserve her culture- not because she has some psychic ability to see into the future and recognize the necessity of preservation. She does it because that is what she knows. Many books set in colonial times present characters with an unusually astute sense of what is happening to their countries and cultures. But this rare insight is really just a result of the author’s benefit of hindsight. Buchi Emecheta artfully avoids this anachronism – her characters react to what is happening to them and their society based on what they know, not on what WE know. The result is a very real look at how it was to live in this time and culture.

This novel also give one a very interesting look at gender issues- both for men and women. In Nnu Ego’s hometown of Ibuza, polygamy is the norm and a woman’s worth is directly related to her ability to bear children. These customs are obviously confining and Nnu Ego struggles with them throughout her life. But the men are also bound by their cultural expectations and changes that colonialism and independence bring further complicate these gender roles.

The Joys of Motherhood is an excellent introduction to Nigerian cultural and politics. Of course, the land of 250 languages can’t be summed up by one woman’s experience, but this is a good start. It has certainly peaked a curiosity in me to learn more about Nigerian history, cultures and politics, and I already have a stack of books to go through. Nigeria’s problems continue today and understanding the history will only help one understand the current issues. I look forward to learning more. I highly recommend this book, and I’d wager that if you read it, your interest in Nigeria will be peaked as well.

The Punishment of Virtue

punishment of virtue

I have (finally!) finished reading “The Punishment of Virtue; Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban,” by Sarah Chayes. It took as lot longer than I thought it would to finish it. I am both sorry and glad it is over.

This is an intriguing and complex look at warlordism in Afghanistan. It is at times thrilling, a true page turner, made even more exciting by the fact that it is a true insider’s account of post 9-11 Afghanistan. Sarah Chayes certainly knows Afghanistan like no one else – she has lived and worked there, researched elusive primary sources and intimately mingled with leaders throughout the country. She does an amazing job of explaining warlordism, its roots and current implications, though sometimes the purely historical chapter can be a bit of a laborious read.

That being said, I have a few complaints.

Ms. Chayes’s background is in radio- it was as a reporter for NPR that she first went to Afghanistan. There are times in this book that it seems written for radio, rather than print. Not a lot, but enough to make you reread a sentence here and there to make sure you understand. There were many times, too, when the descriptions got overly multisyllabic – lots of million dollar words – enough to detract from the setting she was trying so hard to describe. Its been a long time since I needed a dictionary so often while reading a book in English. Her command of vocabulary is impressive- just sometimes a little disruptive.

Beyond writing style, Ms. Chayes sets herself apart from other foreigners in country. She more than once looks down on aid workers, chastising them for their Thursday night parties and their lack of continuity (in this case not staying in country long enough). She also criticized aid organizations for “being played” by the Afghans, Pakistanis and Americans. That aid becomes political is to some degree inevitable in any country. She condemns them with an attitude of knowing better, when in fact in the end, she doesn’t.

Its absolutely beguiling how she places herself right in the middle of reconstruction politics. She is certainly well connected, working personally with local governors, police chiefs, and the president’s brother. She also holds company with US ambassadorial and military higher ups, Afghan cabinet members and President Karzai himself. Its difficult to tell sometimes, however, whether she is a trusted consult or an opinionated pest. She certainly has strong and well founded opinions of what needed to happen, but it felt like she shared them in such patronizing ways. For example, a memo she drafted for President Karzai was entitled, “How to Fire a Warlord in 8 Easy Steps.” Having never met President Karzai, I guess I can’t judge, but it seems like offering him something akin to “Running Afghanistan for Dummies” is a bit pompous.

All in all, it is a very good book. Ms. Chayes has left no stone unturned in this book. It makes me wish I had paid more attention to names and titles during the Afghan elections, and it certainly makes me more aware of the politics going on today. It is a must read for anyone interested in Afghan politics, development or history. You will learn a lot from this book. You will look at Afghanistan a little differently after reading it. It might take you a little longer than you might think (to get through the history chapters) but you’ll be glad you did.