READERS CORNER

My year in books: Mboya, the White House and war zones

I read to draw inspiration, learn new writing styles and travel far away while seated.

In Summary

• We all loved Michelle Obama as the First Lady of the US and the book, probably one of the most read in the recent past, makes you love her even more outside the White House.

• Some time in November, my friend Ken Koast sent me a message and told me was going to launch a poetry book in 2020 and wanted by opinion on it. Thoughts of a Patient Man Breaking and Other Verses is a well written book that I am sure all poetry lovers will like.

Books
Books
Image: OLIVER MATHENGE

"Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers." - Charles W. Eliot

Every year, I lay out a target of books that I should read before December. In 2019, my target was to read at least three books every month - I fell way off the target with no books read in the months of April, September, October and November.

I however managed to read 15 books - one of which is a yet to be launched poetry anthology by a friend who wanted to hear my thoughts on it.

I am currently on my 16th book of 2019 - Megachange: The World in 2050 by Daniel Franklin and John Andrews. So far so good.

I started with two books in the month of January - Nabeel's Song and Daughters of Shame.

Nabeel's Song by Jo Tatchell is a true story of one family's experience of life before, during and after the regime of Saddam Hussein.

The compelling story of Nabeel and his family's refusal to bow to the Saddam regime is lyrically told in a way that takes you into their lives.

It is a story of how Nabeel's family was forced to navigate the oppressive regime with his brothers ending up in prison and him fleeing to Iraq in 1980 as being denounced as an enemy of the state.

Theirs was a story of an ordinary family mounting a rebellion against the Saddam regime and in the process paying the price.

Daughters of Shame by Jasvinder Sanghera tells the stories of young women and the struggle of forced marriages.

 

One of them is Shazia who was kidnapped and taken to Pakistan to marry a man she had never met.

We also read through the heart-wrecking story of Banaz who was murdered by her own family after escaping an abusive marriage.

Sanghera has been working with girls who have been forced into this kind of arrangement something that she is so familiar with as narrated in her memoir, Shame.

Honour crime campaigner was only 15 years old when she ran away from home to escape the plan by her family to marry her off as a teenager.

In Daughters of Shame, Sanghera reveals her own struggles as she is targeted for seeking to help these girls escape their own struggle.

It is a captivating reading drawing a good picture of how many women are suffering over forced marriages in our modern societies and even in advanced countries such as the UK.

As January came to a close, I managed to get into my third book - Michelle Obama's Becoming. This book was supposed to be read in 2018 but it was delayed in shipping from the US.

We all loved Michelle Obama as the First Lady of the US and the book, probably one of the most read in the recent past, makes you love her even more outside the White House.

Michelle's writing is crisp, honest, revealing and captivating taking us through her journey from growing up in Chicago to meeting Barrack and getting into the world's spotlight as the First Lady of the US.

One of my best and most inspirational quotes drawn from the book is found on page 383; "I'd been lucky to have parents, teachers, and mentors who’d fed me with a consistent, simple message: You matter. As an adult, I wanted to pass those words to a new generation."

I took a bit long with becoming and ended up reading only one other - Living History by Hillary Clinton, which at 567 pages, ended up being the longest book I read in 2019.

Unlike her other books, I found this one more revealing and engaging as she took us into the behind the scenes on the role she played in shaping her husband's policies in his years as president.

With some witty phrases and occasional humour, Hillary helps her relive her upbringing and her transition into a student activist and eventually one of America's most controversial First Ladies.

I was 15 years late in reading this book which surprisingly gives one a different feel of Hillary - compassionate, dedicated and inspiring.

It is thus my view that she should have stuck to this simple style of writing subsequent books including What Happened and Hard Choices whose feel was more combative.

In March, I read three books, Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone, Yvonne Owuor's The Dragonfly Sea and David Msusila's Seasons of Hope.

A Long Way Gone is a first-person account by a former child soldier in the , told by the Sierra Leone conflict.

Though it heartbreaking and honest bringing out the horrors of war, I found it weak in details.

I have read several African war memoirs but this one was among the average ones despite having read it 11 years after it was published.

However, I borrowed one quote from it; "If you are alive, there is hope for a better day and something good to happen. If there is nothing good left in the destiny of a person, he or she will die."

I got The Dragonfly Sea as a complimentary from Prestige Bookshop where I purchase all my books when I bought Seasons of Hope.

Yvonne is a great writer who captures your imagination with details of places, time and season and this story of love and loss did not disappoint.

Her writing has a great flow like that of an ocean - which is significant given the setting of this story.

Set in Pate Island (which I didn't know existed) off the Kenyan Coast in Lamu, the story makes you fall in love with Ayanna and her journey to womanhood.

Painted as a stubborn child, Ayanna lives with her mother but as she grows, her world is shaken by many things including a tsunami, dragonflies, as well as religious extremism.

She embarks on a journey to the East that is not only dangerously adventurous but a remarkable turning point for her life.

My only criticism of this book is that it could have taken lesser pages to tell the story. The book is unnecessarily long.

Seasons of Hope is one of the best narrations of Kenya's recent political happenings.

Musila does well by first taking us through his upbringing, his schooling and a journey into the public service.

The honesty with which he tells his political tribulations makes the book stick to your hands.

It is a story of integrity and truthfulness in a country where the two are hard to come by.

The number 8 book that I read was Chris Whipple's The GateKeepers which was a gift from one of my Twitter buddies - I have posted a birthday wishlist of books.

It was one of the three books I read in May with the other two being - Fear by Bob Woodward and Ben Rhode's The World As It Is.

The two were also birthday presents from a WhatsApp Group called The Watering Hole where instead of cake, I made this preference.

The Gatekeepers has  mostly been described as the first in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at the White House Chiefs of Staff, whose actions and inactions defined the course of the US.

The Chief of Staff is an often misunderstood and underrated position in many jurisdictions.

This book reveals the power and workings of the White House Chief of Staff in a very simple way making it easy to understand.

In addition, the book helps one understand some of the decisions made by many US Presidents and what and who influenced them to act in whichever way they did.

Having authoritatively report on eight presidencies from Nixon to Obama, author Bob Woodward is a respected writer on the subject.

Fear was the first book to give us some of the most chilling details of how Donald Trump was running his government from inside the White House.

In this book, Woodward uses hundreds of hours of interviews with firsthand sources as well as documents including meeting notes and personal diaries.

Unlike Fire and Fury, which came before Fear, Woodward has more solid information on Trump's Whitehouse .

In the end, Trump appears to be a President who will get all he wants and has enough enablers and cheerleaders around him.

My reading of The World As It Is spilt over into June making it the only book I read that month.

Having been a fan of Obama, I have really been keen to see how he operated and I am hoping he surprises us with his own book soon.

Ben intertwines his narration of the Obama White House with his personal life in a very lyrical manner.

It is a great reminder that “Progress doesn’t move in a straight line.”

This is a very different memoir that moves away from the one-sided reads that we have seen over time.

Ben is not afraid of revealing what made the Obama administration fail at times; he does not shy away from highlighting his boss' weaknesses.

The book has taken us inside some of the deals made by Obama especially on his foreign interventions such as Libya, Egypt and Cuba.

It sums up well the optimism that the world saw in Obama as he got into office, the fight for re-election and the inside look of handing over to an administration whose pulse no one could put a finger on.

In July, I laid my hands on reads number 11 and 12 - 1982's Tom Mboya, the Man Kenya Wanted to Forget by David Goldsworthy and 41: A Portrait of My Father by George W. Bush published in 2014.

I had always wanted to read the Tom Mboya story but I kept being distracted by my fascination with the American politics - especially the White House.

If one wants to understand the politics and politicians during the initial years after independence, this is a great place to start.

The first part covers Mboya's childhood up to when he got to lead Kenya's labour movement with details of his schooling and other jobs he undertook in between.

The second part is his entry into the national politics while the third covers his time as Minister  in three dockets before his assassination in 1969.

The last section discusses his assassination and all the attempts to forget that he ever existed and had a role to play in the country's future.

George W. Bush's calls his book a 'love story' of his father taking us through from growing up under his father's wings to watching him lead the US in a very eventful presidency.

It is the best father-son story that I have read in life giving us a detailed account of how the family navigated the eventful years when Bush Senior was President.

Bush however does not go into much detail as I would have wished in this book. Decision Points which was on his own Presidency gave us a better glimpse of it unlike what he gave on his father's time in office.

But probably since the book is very personal, it shies away from such details and instead illuminates Bush Senior, the family man.

In August, I read Combatants which is written by my boss, our Director of Convergence William Pike.

I have not read any other book on Uganda's bush war and thus cannot make any informed comparisons.

However, the book takes us into the the war that left a very wounded country and the aftermath struggle to rebuild it.

While making no apologies for his enthusiasm on NRA, Pike gives a great review of Uganda's struggle with itself.

The 14th book ,which I read in September, was Elon Musk: How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping our Future by Ashlee Vance.

Vance attempts to get us into the life of the billionaire but you can tell from the book that he struggles to do this.

Musk's life is portrayed as fast-paced and we only get a glimpse of it with Vance appearing too fascinated to tell us a good story.

Vance did well in getting Musk to tell us his story but his writing comes off more of idolatry for such an inspiring story.

All in all, it provides a great insight to one of the world's greatest innovators.

Some time in November, my friend Ken Koast (real name Kenneth Githaiga) sent me a message and told me was going to launch a poetry book.

Ken, who was a schoolmate in high school, wanted me to get a first look at it and give him a review and edits where necessary.

Thoughts of a Patient Man Breaking and Other Verses is a well written book that I am sure all poetry lovers will like.

Ken, who has also done some hip hip albums, is a lyrical genius whose word play is not easily matched.

From the first verse - 1st Class (Dis)Honours to the last one - Write or Wrong - Ken takes us though a journey that we are all familiar with. 

I especially love the first one as it perfectly draws parallels between street thugs and those stealing while in authority.

And that was my year in books. I will be targeting 36 books again in 2020 and hope I will be more disciplined.