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Yes, there really is such a thing as a camel bookmobile, and the image of unwieldy beasts laden with book-filled boxes provided inspiration for novelist Hamilton (The Distance between Us, 2004) to compose a lush celebration of the productive--and destructive--power of the written word. Languishing in a dead-end job in a Brooklyn library, Fiona Sweeney, 36, feels time is passing her by. So when the opportunity arises to travel to Africa to manage an unorthodox mobile library, Fi jumps at the chance to influence a culture of nomadic people whose existence is dependent upon more basic human requirements, such as water, food, and shelter. With everything from Seuss to Shakespeare, Fi's regular deliveries of books elate the village women and children but intimidate tribal elders, who fear change and anticipate the loss of their ancient ways. When the bookmobile's one intractable rule is broken, the village turns on the emotionally and physically scarred teenager whose act of rebellion jeopardizes everything Fi has worked for. With a heartfelt appreciation for the potential of literature to transcend cultural divides, Hamilton has created a poignant, ennobling, and buoyant tale of risks and rewards, surrender and sacrifice. Starred Review (March 1, 2007) Booklist Reviews
New York City librarian Fiona Sweeney has taken an unusual assignment in Kenya—running a bookmobile service powered by camel and serving isolated, seminomadic villages like Mididima, where teenaged library customer Kanika lives with her grandmother, Neema. Taban, a young man severely scarred as a toddler by a hyena, is shunned by most of the community, but he and Kanika share a friendship and a sweet anticipation of Sweeney's every visit. Matani, Mididima's schoolmaster, is a champion of the service, but even he can't do anything when several missing books threaten the village's reputation and set off a chain of events that expose misguided motives, hidden agendas, illicit romance, and tragedy. This third novel from international journalist Hamilton (e.g., The Distance Between Us , an LJ Best Book) presents a rare and balanced perspective on issues surrounding cultural intrusion and the very meaning and necessity of literacy, using rich and evocative prose that skillfully exposes the stark realities of poverty and charity in today's Africa. Highly recommended for any fiction collection. (March 1, 2007) Library Journal
Hamilton's captivating third novel (after 2004's The Distance Between Us) follows Fiona Sweeney, a 36-year-old librarian, from New York to Garissa, Kenya, on her sincere but nave quest to make a difference in the world. Fi enlists to run the titular mobile library overseen by Mr. Abasi, and in her travels through the bush, the small village of Mididima becomes her favorite stop. There, Matani, the village teacher; Kanika, an independent, vivacious young woman; and Kanika's grandmother Neema are the most avid proponents of the library and the knowledge it brings to the community. Not everyone shares such esteem for the project, however. Taban, known as Scar Boy; Jwahir, Matani's wife; and most of the town elders think these books threaten the tradition and security of Mididima. When two books go missing, tensions arise between those who welcome all that the books represent and those who prefer the time-honored oral traditions of the tribe. Kanika, Taban and Matani become more vibrant than Fi, who never outgrows the cookie-cutter mold of a woman needing excitement and fulfillment, but Hamilton weaves memorable characters and elemental emotions in artful prose with the lofty theme of Western-imposed "education" versus a village's perceived perils of exposure to the developed world. (January 2007) Publishers Weekly
Unshelved by Claire Dederer
Masha Hamilton has good story sense. She started out as a journalist for The Los Angeles Times, The Associated Press and other news organizations, reporting from Russia, Africa and the Middle East. It's not surprising, then, that when she began a new career as a novelist she demonstrated a knack for setting her fiction in volatile, real-life situations. Her first novel, ''Staircase of a Thousand Steps,'' was a coming-of-age story set in a Middle Eastern village in 1966. Her second, ''The Distance Between Us,'' followed a war correspondent who found herself in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Hamilton's latest novel, ''The Camel Bookmobile,'' has a quieter provenance. In Kenya, books are delivered to remote villages by camel -- a discovery Hamilton has put into her fiction hopper to yield a story about an American librarian, Fi Sweeney, who leaves her home in New York to take a job in Africa.
Out in the bush, Fi immediately meets a man who challenges her idealistic assumptions. Unfortunately, that man is also her boss. Mr. Abasi, the Anglophile Kenyan librarian in charge of the bookmobile project, thinks the whole enterprise is a waste of money and time. Why deliver books to ignorant nomads, inspiring at best hopeless yearnings and at worst confusion and dissatisfaction? Reluctantly, he takes Fi to Mididima, the village that will become the nexus of her African experience. There she meets the local schoolteacher and his beautiful, dissatisfied wife, as well as a female tribal elder who reads to find solace from a lifetime of loss and her granddaughter, a dreamer intent on escaping the village for a teaching job in the city. The most affecting of Fi's patrons is a boy whose face has been ruined by a marauding hyena.
Hamilton can be infuriatingly pedantic. While she has a journalist's instinct for storytelling, she lacks a novelist's feel for the open-ended, the evocative, the absurd. All too often, ''The Camel Bookmobile'' seems to see Africa and literacy and nomadism as problems to be solved rather than subjects to be explored. Nowhere is this more evident than in the novel's opening sections, where Hamilton gives us positions rather than characters: the educated local librarian who resents the foreign do-gooders; the hopeful young girl who believes in the power of literature.
Yet despite these ham-handed initial characterizations, Hamilton's narrative instinct prevails, and a welcome complexity develops as Fi begins to realize that the delivery of books isn't an entirely benign enterprise. When the disfigured boy simply refuses to return his books, his rebellion gives rise to a serious rift that affects not only his family and the tribal elders but Fi herself.
An unreturned library book hardly seems like the stuff of massive conflict, but Hamilton makes us see how much is really at stake in a poverty-stricken place where every possession carries the weight of significance. A larger conflict wouldn't do justice to the notion of honor as lived by these people: it extends all the way down to the smallest stack of books. (August 26, 2007) New York Times Book Review