Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Off the Radar - Two Little Gems

This is what I'll miss most about working in a library and why I'll need to be a frequent visitor. I'll still read all the professional journals, of course, I'll be up on what the top writers in the world are doing, but how on earth do you find the little delights that catch your eye when you're shelving? Perhaps it would be fun to work in a book store.

My dear friend Andrea understands how much I crave respite from the news of the world, the frustration and disappointment with the status quo, because she's the same way. So when she mentioned that I might enjoy A Guide to the Birds of East Africa, a novel by Nicholas Drayson, I snapped it up. Think Major Pettigrew moves from East Anglia to Nairobi, Kenya.

In the quiet, subtle manner of Alexander McCall-Smith, Drayson, who lived in Nairobi for two years, touches on many serious political issues facing the Kenyan people, the prevalence of AIDS, corruption of the police and political authorities, and race relations, through a sweet love triangle.

At the center of this triangle is the widow Rose Mbikwa. Of Scottish descent, Rose met and married the love of her life, an African political activist who died in prison under mysterious circumstances. For sixteen years Rose has led the Tuesday morning bird walks and for six years Mr. Malik has been in her thrall, slowly healing from the death of his own beloved wife Aruna.

With the annual Nairobi Hunt Club Ball approaching, the shy, rotund, balding, Mr. Malik is trying desperately to drum up the courage to ask Mrs. Mbikwa to accompany him, when a blast from his past appears in the person of the gold-chain-draped, red-sport-car-driving, Harry Khan. Harry is a caricature of every fast-talking, womanizing creep who ever came down the pike so he naturally sets his cap for Rose.

What follows is a madcap, week long competition to win the hand of the unwitting Rose, who happens to be out of the country having eye surgery. The rules set up by Mr. Malik's cronies at the Asadi men's club state that whichever man comes up with the highest number of unique bird sightings will have the privilege of asking Rose to the ball. Only problem? No one seems to have let the estimable Mrs. Rose Mbikwa in on the contest.

A more serious but no less beautifully written novel that caught my eye is The Typist by Michael Knight, a creative writing teacher at the University of Tennessee. Ann Patchett calls it "elegant, thoughtful, and resonant." Need I say more?
Set in Tokyo immediately after the devastating bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this novel examines the disconnect between the conquered and the conquerors, through the eyes of Francis VanCleave, a typist on the staff of General MacArthur.

Van is not your typical soldier abroad. As the typist he is more of an observer, a witness to the carelessness with which the army's men make their presence known, frequenting the dance halls and prostitutes, condescending to the locals. But when Van's roommate, the troubled, insecure combat veteran Clifford, falls hard for Namiki, a local woman from a good family, he enlists Van's help in securing her trust, setting in motion a series of events that readers sense will end in tragedy.

Knight's writing is so spare and perfect. It's amazing the emotions he generates in less than 200 pages. Van's sensibilites commend themselves to MacArthur who entrusts his lonely 10 year old son to Van's weekly visits. Their poignant relationship foreshadows the resolution of another personal decision Van must make about the wife he married on impulse and left behind in the states.

Though The Typist takes place in the 1940's it could just as easily be set in Baghdad or Kabul right now. It poses the question, "what do we look like to those whose lives we've destroyed?" How must it feel to be beholden to your conquerors for your recovery? So far, we've been lucky, but I often wonder when our acts of aggression will come back to haunt us. More to the point, why aren't they haunting us right now?

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