Emergency Sex opens with a note to its readers: an advisement that the book that follows is not meant to be an objective report or an exhaustive discussion of international politics, but rather a collection of very personal memories, of triumphs and tragedies. As the subtitle suggests, the authors have worked as peacekeepers in some of the world’s most dangerous and godforsaken places, and the book details their attempt to do good in places that seem anything but.
We follow the intersecting stories of Heidi, a social worker from New York fleeing a failed marriage, Ken, an idealistic Harvard law student, and Andrew, a doctor from New Zealand. The three meet in Cambodia in 1993 in the midst of a UN-supervised democratic election. Despite their diverse backgrounds and varying motivations for peacekeeping, the three become friends and continue their work in Bosnia, Somalia, Liberia, and Haiti. Seen through their eyes, the book offers up a vivid picture of events that shaped the post-Cold War world and of the people who lived through them.
Their stories are honest, gripping, and often darkly funny. They are stories of formerly sheltered individuals confronting genocide, political corruption, and unimaginable bureaucracy, and how they maintain their humanity while doing so. The authors are honest in reporting the tragedies they witnessed, but they are also honest in reporting their own shortcomings and failures, which is imperative in an effective memoir. The reader may disagree with the authors’ motivations or political positions, but the value of their experiences is undeniable.
One of the authors writes, “I’ve pictured this… a thousand times, in a hundred books. Conrad in Africa, Graham Greene in Asia, Hemingway in Cuba. But it’s finally me and it’s finally real.” Another recalls his arrival in war-torn Mogadishu as a scene out of a movie. This book is a perfect read for those who yearn for meaningful adventure, want to supplement academic texts on peacekeeping, or (like the authors) is looking to serve a cause higher than themselves. For me, Emergency Sex belongs in the canon of must-reads on international conflicts, sandwiched right between We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families and What is the What. Like them, not only does this book break your heart, but it does so by putting such a human face on global events that it is impossible to stop reading.
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