Photo: nests acacia tree Kenya

Bird nests fill an acacia tree in Kenya, the site of Nicholas Drayson's new novel.

Photograph by Lee Foster, Alamy

By Don George

September 2008

Book of the Month: 
A Guide to the Birds of East Africa,
by Nicholas Drayson

Whether you know Nairobi only from sensationalizing headlines and news reports or from a furtive stopover en route to a Serengeti safari, chances are good that menace and chaos color your associations. And yet, as I learned on a multi-day stay last summer, far from the foreign correspondent's camera and notebook, life goes on every day in the Kenyan capital with still considerable swatches of dignity and delight. This is one of the subtexts of Nicholas Drayson's engaging new novel, A Guide to the Birds of East Africa.

This quiet, gently humorous tale weaves the destinies of four principal characters: Mr. Malik is a reserved, brown-skinned bird-lover whose undeclared passion propels the narrative. The object of his affection is red-haired and pale-skinned Rose Mbikwa, longtime leader of the weekly East African Ornithological Society's bird walks. The third character is Mr. Malik's observant, empathetic shamba boy helper, Benjamin. Ruffling this flock's feathers is the flamboyant and carefree Harry Khan, who flies in from North America and incites a romantic rivalry for Rose's attentions.

Based on a bird-watching challenge between Malik and Khan, Drayson's narrative interlaces learned details about the birds of Nairobi and environs with equally insightful depictions of the capital's human inhabitants. We are introduced to subcultures rarely seen or associated with Kenya, such as the faithfuls of the Asadi Club, longtime residents of Nairobi whose ancestors emigrated from India in the early 20th century, or the fervent bird-watchers of the EAOS, who range from old Africa hands such as Hilary Fotherington-Thomas to young tourist guides such as Jennifer Halutu.

Woven through the unfolding tragicomic competition between Malik and Khan are piquant portrayals of the political corruption, infrastructure inconveniences, and elaborate social niceties that underlie the layers of everyday Nairobi life. As his characters entertainingly tally more and more bird-sightings, Drayson manages to touch on the capital's smoky sidewalk rubbish disposal system, the practice of Somali tribesmen crossing the border to kidnap young Kenyans for mercenary slavery, and the challenges and ravages of AIDS.

The refreshing accomplishment of this novel is that, as for most Kenyans, these factors are not the focus of Drayson's literary binoculars; rather they are the backdrop to an even more illuminating guide: to the habits and habitats, instincts and ideals, of the birds—nested and not—of this lovingly evoked East African field.

New Book Roundups

Love and War
In Guernica, Seattle sports writer Dave Boling crafts a love story and family epic set during the Spanish Civil War. Boling, whose wife is Basque, fills his debut novel with vibrant local characters and details of the resilient Basque town whose firebombing by the German Luftwaffe in 1937 compelled Picasso's iconic painting of the horrors of war. In post-9/11 Afghanistan, a more current conflict links disparate personalities in Nadeem Aslam's award-winning The Wasted Vigil—a British doctor mourning the death of his Afghan wife, a Russian woman searching for her missing soldier brother, a young Afghani jihadi, and an American ex-CIA spy.

Tales of the Fathers
In his memoir, Stalin's Children: Three Generations of Love, War, and Survival,Newsweek's Moscow bureau chief Owen Matthews contrasts his experience working in contemporary Russia with a journey into his family's Russian roots.

In the process he discovers the story behind his grandfather's disappearance in 1937 Ukraine, and learns the details of his parents' own struggle in the 1960s to be reunited after his British father was deported from Russia. Another journalist digs into his heritage in My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq. Christian Science Monitor reporter Ariel Sabar ventures to his father's hometown of Zakho, Iraq, where once a mostly illiterate community of Jews lived, so isolated they still spoke Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

Short List: New & Noteworthy

Downtown Owl, rock music writer Chuck Klosterman's pop culture-filled debut novel about a fictional North Dakota town.

Kenya: A Country in the Making 1880-1940, a black-and-white archival photo book by Nigel Pavitt documenting Kenya's transition to modern nationhood.

The Toss of a Lemon, Padma Viswanathan's generation-spanning first novel about a Tamil Brahmin family in southern India.

Learning to Breathe, the harrowing and ultimately heartening account of photojournalist Alison Wright's near-death bus accident in Laos and her long journey of recovery.

One Last Thing: Motorcycle Diaries Revisited

Thirty-four years ago, when Robert Pirsig published Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he inspired a tribe of philosopher-wanderers, including me. I brought his tome on a one-year teaching fellowship to Athens and earnestly absorbed his ruminations about Zen, Quality, and Plato, and other early Greek philosophers on the sunrise-illumined steps of the Acropolis. So it was with particular nostalgia that I perused Mark Richardson's new homage, Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. An admirable attempt to reconstruct Pirsig's pilgrimage, Richardson's account is graced with its own moments of poignancy and profundity. But its greatest gift is resuscitating the vivid spark of Pirsig's peregrination and pointing me again toward the lessons of that impassioned path.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at dgeorge@ngs.org.

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