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Wednesday, June 29, 2022

A gamut of genres for the avid but unaware reader (Ajit Weekly News Column: Bookends)

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The reason for this is not too difficult to fathom — books are written by people for the enjoyment and edification of other people, and given the inter-connection of the human experience, something or the other is going to strike a chord with someone somewhere.

Be it, say a cross-generational, cross-cultural romance set in pre-WWII Singapore, a ‘ripped from the headlines’ thriller reprising a Daniel Pearl-like situation in Karachi, a tale of political or criminal chicanery set in some forgotten corner of Europe, or sub-Saharan Africa, or a darkly comic look at a big or small historic episode, through the eyes of an anti-hero, or more.

Let us look at a handful of books that may defy slotting into particular genres, may have gone unnoticed, but are compelling and delightful reads. Of course, there is a caveat that reading choices can be very subjective, but then, some of them may click too.

The Mafia has inspired a number of books and movies, the most famous of them being Mario Puzo’s "The Godfather" (1969). A contemporary, and less sombre, even rollicking, look is Pulitzer-winning American journalist and author James Earle ‘Jimmy’ Breslin’s "The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight" (1969; filmed in 1971 with Robert DeNiro).

Based superficially on the life of New York mobster Joey Gallo aka "Crazy Joe", it is the story of Kid Sally Palumbo, a long-loyal operative of the Brooklyn Mafia and skilled in murder, which brings him to the attention of the local top Mafia boss, Baccala, but his vocation doesn’t get him the money and respect he craves. Also because, his mental skills are negligible — "Baccala was of the opinion that Kid Sally Palumbo couldn’t run a gas station at a profit even if he stole the customers’ cars."

To keep Sally from stirring up trouble, the boss offers him an easy assignment — organise a bicycle race through Brooklyn, and keep the profits.The result: A messy turf war that quickly engulfs the borough and which the usually complaisant police cannot ignore. And yes, there is a lion there somewhere too.

The quips are hard to stop evoking laughter — say, "Raymond the Wolf passed away in his sleep one night from natural causes; his heart stopped beating when the three men who slipped into his bedroom stuck knives in it." There are plenty more like that. And the caricatures and unsuccessful love story round it off.

More serious, but no less compelling is French-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf’s historical fiction "Samarkand" (1988 French, 1994 English).

This combines a depiction of 11th-century Persia and Central Asia, where poet-astronomer Omar Khayyam is trying to compile his celebrated "Rubaiyat" and early 20th-century Iran, where a young and a bit impetuous American named Benjamin Omar Lesage is trying to get his hands on the work’s original manuscript and gets involved in the 1905 Revolution.

Adding flavour to the work are Khayyam’s interactions with historical personages like the Seljuk Vizier, Nizam al-Mulk, and Hassan al-Sabbah, founder of the feared Order of the Assassins, and his love affair with a female poet of the titular city. The modern part deals with the American’s own view of Persian culture and history and his bittersweet romance.

Lesage ultimately achieves his aim and sends his valuable package home — only he picks the Titanic.

Espionage, with all its twists and turns and layers and layers of deceptions, is a difficult genre to pull off — even for those who have had first-hand experience of it. There is no shortage of books, however — Dan Fesperman’s "The Double Game" (2012) gives an extensive list, or old and new authors who are not that well known — Geoffrey Davison, Desmond Cory, Adam Diment, Kenneth Benton, Alan Williams, and more.

British novelist Gavin Scott is also a filmmaker and writer of the Emmy-winning mini-series "Mists of Avalon", Dreamworks’ "Small Soldiers", and after moving to the US, he tied up with George Lucas to develop and script "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles". We are however concerned with his Duncan Forrester series.

"The Age of Treachery" (2016), set in Oxford a year after the end of WWII, has former Special Operations Executive Agent Duncan Forrester seeking to resume his academic career, but the atmosphere at his college becomes tense when a much-disliked don is found murdered in the quadrangle and his colleague and friend is the prime accused.

Our hero, whose PTSD is still to be quelled, jumps in to save him and must navigate lost Viking sagas, Satanic rituals and wartime espionage in his quest.

What elevates this is some cameos by academic colleague J.R.R. Tolkien, concerned over his first "Lord of the Rings" manuscript, a helpful ex-colleague-turned-journalist (and budding author) Ian Fleming, and the toxic atmosphere of ambition and extremism as the Cold War dawns even as Nazism remains to be extirpated.

If you happen to like this, Forrester returns in "The Age of Olympus" (2017), set in Greece heading towards civil war, and "The Age of Exodus" (2018), set in 1947, where Britain comes to terms with the loss of its empire, a grisly murder in the British Museum, and terrorists targeting a senior minister make for a compelling read.

"Moghul Buffet/Murder in Peshawar" (2003) by researcher and analyst Cheryl Barnard, who also happens to be wife of top US diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad, is another book that is difficult to categorise.

At face value, it tells of an American businessman going missing from a Peshawar hotel, leaving just a cryptic blood-smeared message and believed murdered. As his sister comes there from the US to uncover his fate, there is a string of other murders, including those of a a prominent local businessman and fundamentalist cleric.

An upright police officer is despatched from Islamabad to get to the bottom of what is going on, and his demure wife, and her hotwire woman journalist friend accompany him, while in Peshawar, an enigmatic high-society woman, a lovelorn student, an abused woman, and so on, round up the scene.

Technically a mystery, it is also a black comic look at modern Pakistani society, including its complicated gender roles and relations, the way it interacts with the West, and of course, the birth of the Taliban.

On a different genre and continent is British-born, Australia-settled journalist-turned-writer Nicholas Drayson’s ingenious but endearing love story-cum-zoological caper "A Guide to the Birds of East Africa" (2008), featuring a Nairobi businessman, Mr Malik, and his family and friends.<br> <br>The short, slightly overweight, balding middle-aged widower develops a crush on the leader of his Tuesday morning bird-walk and intends to invite her to his club’s annual ball, but a rival — a former schoolmate — unexpectedly surfaces and has the same aim. To resolve the issue, members of their club devise a unique wager — and ensure plenty of misadventures for both in the scenic Kenyan countryside, with not-so-pleasant political intrigues to keep the reader engrossed.

You can see what Malik and his family and friends get up to next in "A Guide To Beasts of East Africa" (2012), where his planning of his club’s annual safari is hit by a series of strange crimes, which puts its very existence at risk.

It is up to him and his friends to unravel this tangle, as well as an age-old murder, recover the club mascot and identify, finally, the most dangerous beast in Africa.

Try any of these — they can be quite enticing!

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected])

–Ajit Weekly News<br>vd/srb


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