Books

I’ll be honest, my social life in San Pedro de Macorís (the town I’m currently living in*) is pretty limited. I spend all day with the staff at my MFI (who are great fun) and evenings with the family I’m living with (who are just lovely) but I don’t regularly go out for beers with a big group of mates. Where I come from we have a phrase to describe people like me – Billy No Mates. For people who don’t know me, please don’t think that I’m usually such a ‘Billy’ – I’ve got a great bunch of friends at home – I just don’t think it’s that easy to make a load of really close friends in just a few months in a town where I am the only foreigner.

But I’m actually really enjoying the quiet life. In the evenings, if I’m not chatting to the people in my house I’ll probably either be surfing the web, writing down my thoughts or reading. This blog is about the latter. What I’ve read while I’ve been out here (this won’t seem very much as I’m a particularly slow reader!) and what I’m reading. I’ve only got one book left which should last me through Haiti but I’d also love your recommendations as I head over to Colombia. I’ve really enjoyed each one of these books so would encourage anyone to give them a go. Please don’t take this as a book review: it is definitely not that. Especially as I read a couple of these some time ago and am going off hazy recollections. I just thought it may be of interest, whether you’ve read them or not.

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

This recently-published book received a lot of publicity. For a number of different reasons. Firstly, it followed on from The Corrections, a novel which won Franzen great acclaim when it was published in 2001, and so Franzen fans were hoping for something good. 2001 – but Freedom was published in 2010? Yes – it took him 9 years to write it. Franzen fans were hoping for something especially good. People really got talking when Franzen was invited onto the Oprah Winfrey show. Franzen and Winfrey had famously fallen out because she wanted to feature  The Corrections in her Book Club and he declined. Come 2010, Franzen has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, a reconciliation has taken place and Winfrey has hailed the book a ‘masterpiece’. And the critics generally followed suit, frequently comparing it to Dickens and Tolstoy. The Guardian newspaper called FreedomThe Novel of the Century‘ even though we had another 90 years to go! And then finally there was the giant cock-up. Publishing house HarperCollins realised they’d made a monumental blunder when they discovered that the first 80,000 copies of the UK edition that had been sent to bookstores were actually draft copies of the novel, littered with spelling and grammatical mistakes. 8,000 had already been sold and these were recalled. The rest were pulped. I bought one of the 8,000 and didn’t send mine back. There were quite a few mistakes but it didn’t really affect my enjoyment of the book.

And enjoy it I did. Immensely. The Tolstoy and Dickens comparison is not made (I think) due to the way that Franzen writes – one of the things I’ve always enjoyed about Dickens in particular is the richness of his descriptions, something which isn’t so evident here – but more the subject matter, or the way that Tolstoy, Dickens and Franzen all use a few central characters to describe society as a whole. And I think Franzen does that really well for the modern era. I’d be interested to see if Americans agree with me because Freedom focuses on US society – something that I’m not greatly familiar with – but my impression (which also stems from what I see in the UK and through global media) is that he does a very good job. I suppose it depends on how you view the world though, because it’s pessimistic. If you’re an optimist then you’ll see things differently, but it’s an interesting take on modern society nonetheless. The book can be quite crude and explicit at times but, again, Franzen’s only portraying the world as he sees it.

This book really is awesome. When I finished I had that amazing feeling when you come to the end of something epic. Jubilation, a little nostalgia and a yearning to go right back to the beginning and start again.

Catch-22by Joseph Heller

I love it when books make me laugh. I’ll be honest, I tend to find TV and film much funnier than literature, but then I suppose visual media has the advantage of being, well, visual. TV and film also has audio on its side and so I think that literature has to work especially hard to make us laugh to the same degree. But I laughed all the way through this book. It’s relatively old as well (published in 1961) and so I think (humour-wise) it’s stood the test of time very well, and will do for years to come. There are not many books – or indeed sitcoms/films for that matter – that have proved consistently funny to different generations, and for that reason alone I think that Catch-22 is a great book.

But it also does a brilliant job of satirising war and ridiculing its logic. As well as questioning the nature of war itself, it focuses on the sort of things that make a war drag out – bureaucracy, tactics, poor leadership – whether that be in terms of time, money or body count. You can probably attribute a lot of the themes evoked by the book to many of the wars of the modern era, and so Catch-22 seems particularly relevant. Catch-22 makes you laugh but it also makes you think. And question.

All this said, I’m not sure the style of the book would be to everyone’s taste. There’s an awful lot going on and it all happens very quickly (this is intentional). If you’re only interested in novels that allow you to completely lose yourself in a rich and detailed plot, this book isn’t for you. One thing I did find, though, is that Heller has an amazing vocabulary. I found myself jotting down word after word, going through them with a dictionary and then adding them to my ‘words to learn’ list.

Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

I’m coming to the end of the longest novel I’ve ever read and will post something when I finish. It’s great though.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve only got Oliver Twist still to read and will then be looking for recommendations. Got any?

*I’m now (at time of publishing) living in Haiti. I’ll admit that I’ve returned late to a draft!

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Impressions of the Dominican Republic

I’m writing this is Haiti. I arrived in the Dominican Republic on October 21st and spent about 2 and a half months there. As well as working throughout the country I tried to travel around each weekend. As such, I think I left with a pretty good feel for the DR, although there’s a lot – namely the South West – that I’d still like to see.

Enjoying typical Dominican food - rice, meat, beans and salad

It’s interesting to be writing this in Haiti. It’s helped to give me an additional perspective on the Dominican Republic. Here you have 2 countries which share the same island but portray significant social, ethnic, economic, cultural, gastronomic and natural differences.

It’s hard to think of an easy way to describe the Dominican Republic. The country doesn’t evoke a particular striking emotion in me, more a blend of feelings. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I didn’t enjoy my time in the DR – I really did – but I think that was more down to my job and living situation (i.e. the family I lived with) than the country itself.

Early evening at a typical Dominican beach

Of course the Dominican Republic has its fair share of beauty. Just type Dominican Republic into Google Images and you’ll see that the beaches are pretty impressive. They’re not the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever visited – the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia take that prize – but they’re pretty impressive nonetheless. And you can have many of the prettiest beaches to yourself, all day long. Further inland, the mountain scenery can be equally stunning. I have enjoyed some of my most picturesque bus drives in the DR. Aside from that, I met some lovely people, whether they be colleagues, clients, the people I lived with or just people I got chatting to in the street.

So what is there not to like? Well, I don’t like Santo Domingo, the capital. The people aren’t as friendly as in the regions and it’s hot, stressful, dirty and not particularly attractive. Luckily I didn’t have to spend too much time here. Apart from that I didn’t like the music and no-one was into football. Trivial complaints perhaps, but for me they made a difference. I also find it hard to put my finger on obvious cultural idiosyncrasies which can clearly be attributed to the DR. But what really got to me was that it just felt like the DR had lost its way.

I feel that I’m writing this blog at a time when the Dominican Republic is going through a rough patch. That’s not just a foreigner’s hunch, it’s how most people I spoke to recounted their experience of the past few years. And it was sad to see. In recent years tourism had largely been responsible for fueling the Dominican Republic’s growth, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs and boosting its year-on-year GDP at an impressive rate. But now it seems that this sector has fallen off the map. Guides at beautiful natural attractions show me the charms of this country as an individual as opposed to a member of a group. They lament that nowadays ‘los americanos’ (translated literally as ‘Americans’ but really meaning ‘foreigners‘) just don’t come.

Sunset at San Pedro's port

I’m sure it’s not all down to tourism though. In San Pedro, the town where I was principally based, I heard many people complaining about the closure of local factories and the jobs that this cost. I can’t criticize the Dominican government because I don’t know the reasons for such closures, but what I heard was that many of these jobs have not been effectively replaced. As I walked the streets of San Pedro during the day, it saddened me to see the same people sat on the streets doing nothing, day in, day out.

I left the Dominican Republic hoping that it would soon muster the energy to pull its way out of a slump.

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Past Kiva blogs

Hi,

You may already have read these but I thought I’d include the links to my past blogs. Some include my first forays into the world of ‘movie’ making. They’re pretty budget but I think it’s a new-found passion of mine.

Blog 1Great Expectations, Unexpected Revelations. This is about my preconceptions about the Dominican Republic and microfinance, and how they changed upon arrival.

Blog 2A Picture Paints 1,120 Words. A really inspirational microfinance story.

Blog 3Loan Officers – Kiva’s Unsung Heroes. Delving into the world of the people who facilitate loans in the field. This blog was featured on the Social Edge website, which I was quite pleased about, and also contains my first Youtube video, which I’ve also posted below:

Blog 4The Making of A Kiva Christmas Song. I had no internet connection for about 3 days and so decided to write a Christmas song for Kiva. I got friends back home to play and sing it and then put together a ‘music video’ with my own footage and that of other Kiva Fellows based all around the world. The video can be seen below:

My next Kiva blog will be published in 2 or 3 weeks and will be about my first experiences in Haiti. Watch this space.

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Introduction … 3 Months On

Hello everyone!

I have decided to start writing a personal blog nearly 3 months after leaving the UK. No time like the present! I’m heading to Haiti in a couple of days and, having generally completed my set of ‘deliverables’ for the Dominican Republic, I thought I’d start jotting down a few words about my time here and share them with anyone who’s interested.

For those of you who don’t know, I’m currently working out in the Dominican Republic as a ‘Kiva Fellow’ for Kiva (www.kiva.org). I’ll also be heading to Haiti and then on to Medellín in Colombia in February. I should be heading back to the UK some time in June.

Kiva was set up just over 5 years ago and lets people lend to entrepreneurs in 57 countries (and counting) with the purpose of alleviating poverty. If you haven’t visited the site before I’d really encourage you to have a look and maybe think about making your first loan.

As you may have seen, I, along with other Kiva Fellows based all around the world, already post a blog for Kiva about once every 2 weeks. These can either be read at WordPress’s Kiva Fellows blog, the Kiva website or at the relevant country section of Lonely Planet’s website. I’m also going to include these posts in this personal blog (and will include my already-published blogs so I apologise if you find yourself re-reading).

So, happy reading! I hope you find the blog interesting and I welcome any feedback. If you want to get in touch, please contact me at nick.hamilton@fellows.kiva.org. Finally, as I’m writing this at the very start of the year, I’d just like to wish everyone all the best for the rest of 2011.

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