Birdwatching in East Africa?

It’s my first day at a new job, and my head is bursting from all the information I’ve been given to assimilate. So I’m going to recycle a feature I tried to introduce way back when: the book review. While still unemployed I completed a number of ‘journeys around the world’ without budging from the couch, and I’d like to share some of my impressions.

Here we go!

Title: A Guide to Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson

Setting: Nairobi, Kenya, 1990s or early 2000s

Similar to: nothing I can think of

Rating: 3/5

Warning – plot spoilers ahead!

Summary: Mr. Malik, an unimposing elderly gentleman, spends his retirement in Nairobi going on bird-watching walks every Tuesday, where he shyly spends more time watching and admiring Rose (the guide) then birds. His orderly life is turned upside down when his boarding school nemesis, Harry Khan, shows up and not only revives Malik’s abhorred schoolboy nickname, but decides to woo Rose as well. The club both belong to intervenes and determines that whoever spots the most birds in a week will be the winner of the coveted prize of inviting Rose to the annual Nairobi ball.

Comments: The book cover billed this as a cross between P. G. Wodehouse and Alexander McCall Smith. Having never actually finished any of McCall Smith’s books (I know! A glaring omission, but I just can’t get into them), I can’t fully attest to the truth of the comparison.  I could make learned stuff up, if course, but I’m trying to be objective here! However, having fed myself on a steady diet of Jeeves and Wooster antics in all shapes, forms and sizes over the past few years, I can confirm there is a large, large gap between this book and anything Wodehouse created.

The book, although it has some parts which made me laugh at loud (even though at times the humor was a bit in the toilet genre), is not upheld in the steady stream of lightness and improbability that forms the world of Wodehouse’s characters. Yes, there are improbable scenes which can be amusing, but they are only slapstick scenes set in what is rather a dark world.

You might say I shouldn’t complain – the world is dark and full of pain. I agree. Perhaps it was simply that I was looking for a light read, something that would draw me out and beyond my current situation, where I could laugh at someone’s antics without worrying about their consequences. I wanted to laugh (or at least smile bemusedly) at the adventures of two elderly men chasing across Kenya to find exotic birds in their quest for a charming elderly lady’s hand; but somewhere along the way, the author bombarded me with a large dose of political corruption, the HIV epidemic and homophobia, armed robberies by Somali tribesmen, excessive and unchecked military power, and lack of freedom of speech. I’ll leave up to the experts whether these are all really current ills ailing Kenya and many other countries. As to me, I simply didn’t want to be reminded of that during the two hours I spent reading this book. Wodehouse could also have written about the unemployment, economic and political uneasiness of the interwar years in Great Britain; but he chose to create a fictional world in which the main problem is extricating a hapless well-off young man from predicaments his lack of assertiveness and lack of intellect gets him into, and that world is safe, friendly, and fun to watch from the sidelines.

Would I recommend this? If you are into bird-watching, yes. If you are traveling to Nairobi, this book might be enjoyable as an in-flight read that will give you a nice background and feel for the city. If, however, you’re looking for a light and easy read to cheer you up on your dark early-morning commute, don’t try this one. I suggest anything written by P. G. Wodehouse. The boost of your morning mood (endorphins) will be well worth the strange looks you get from your fellow commuters as you burst into frequent guffaws or giggles. Trust me on this one.

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