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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Holiday season

I've started my holiday reading for 2007 using my now traditional strategy. Each time I see an interesting review of a book, I add it to my Amazon wishlist. Then, when I order something from Amazon that is less than £15 I go to the wishlist and pick something -- almost at random -- to top up the order so I get the free shipping. I think this is an excellent way to buy books, since it retain serendipity as well as surprise: when an Amazon parcel arrives (which is just about every week in our house) I can never remember exactly what it has in it. That makes it very enjoyable to open to the package. Anyway, when it gets to holiday time then I head over to the wishlist and order half-a-dozen titles from it. The package arrived a couple of days ago. I picked up the first book in the pile and I couldn't put it down: I was up until 1am last night finishing it.

"Emergency Sex (and Other Desperate Measures): True Stories from a War Zone" (Kenneth Cain, Heidi Postlewait, Andrew Thomson)

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Not only is it extremely well-writen, but it is structured in a very clever way. It intertwines three very personal stories to keep a mounting sense of, well, horror I guess. Yet the narrative is driving and the content fascinating. At the end of the book I felt slightly sick, but I also felt educated and informed, a little more knowledgeable about the world and, unfortunately, its inhabitants. I won't give anything away by saying that the book tells the story of UN personnel and a journey from a sort of idealism and hope (and parties and per-diems) at the beginning in Cambodia (trying to rebuild the country after the "killing fields"), to the UN standing by and allowing genocide in Rwanda (where the scale of the unmechanised slaughter of hundreds of thousands with clubs and machetes is simply mind-boggling) and Bosnia, to the Nigerian UN "peacekeepers" who traded food for sex with children before raping, beheading and sexually mutilating nine year-old girls in Liberia. If there is a central lesson to be learned from the book it is, as one of the writers notes (and many reviewers -- eg, in Samizdata -- picked up), "if blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers arrive and tell you that they are going to protect you, run".

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