Saturday, July 31, 2010

BOOK REVIEW (Original ) And Thereby Hangs a Tale (what appeared in Daily Times was heavily edited)

He has penned numerous bestsellers, done a stint as an M.P. (Member of Parliament), followed by a stint in prison, stopped by the House of Lords, and been in and out of politics. Somewhere along the way he also made ‘life peer’. He is Jeffrey Archer –successful British author and failed politician, who has a knack for turning his fortunes around. His lordship has been front page news for years. He is no stranger to celebrity or infamy and is someone who seems to juggle these roles (as author, politician and jailbird) better than most.

Archers first book – ‘Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less’, written after his close encounter with near-bankruptcy was an instant bestseller. In later life, his courtroom ordeal became a stage play (Archer dabbles in playwriting) titled ‘The Accused’ and two years in prison ended up as a three part volume aptly named ‘A Prison Diary’ - Hell (Part 1), Purgatory (Part II) & Heaven (Part III). Another well known work - ‘Kane and Abel’ has been recently revised for its 30th anniversary. Other stories have been adapted for stage, television, and film.

Now Archer is back with a new book – this time it is a delightful set of fifteen short stories out of which ten are based on real incidents and five are borne of pure fantasy. He picked up this relatively light blend of ‘strange but true’ collection during his travels. In the hands of a superb storyteller such as Archer the simplest of storylines assume fantastic proportions. The fact that he is a contemporary writer who manages to keep his plot moving without resorting to the usual tricks of the trade is a refreshing change. Graphic details are kept to an absolute minimum and the emphasis is on the story – like it used to be in the good old days.

‘And Thereby Hangs a Tale’ is his sixth book of short stories.

The journey begins with an ingenious con by a couple up to no good (according to the law of the land) and ends with a fairy tale ‘in the making’ about a couple up to no good (according to the laws of their sect). Midway readers can spend time with a bumbling diplomat in the ‘Un-diplomatic Diplomat’ - a fellow who managed to create strife between tribes that had lived in peace for centuries or accompany Alan Penfold on his first case, ‘which one never forgets’ – as he is constantly reminded, in ‘High Heels’. Or, like Archer one can do time with Benny the Fence in ‘Double Cross’.

The fact that so many of these stories are based on true incidents is an added attraction. Part of the allure lies in trying to spot the originals. The more outrageous tales happen to be true. Be they real or imagined, most, if not all the stories deliver on all counts.

Whether it is a simple matter of ‘The Queens Birthday Telegram’ in which a Centenarian must fence with the Queen’s staff or something more involving like ‘Members Only’ where a golf clubs won at a raffle – and one golf ball set events in motion that change the course of a young man life – the book promises to keep readers riveted till the end. Also featured is a fresh variation of the tried and tested ‘sneaky nurse tricks family out of fortune’ routine in ‘Where There’s a Will’.

The final story will appeal to the South Asian audience as it concerns a real life Indian fairy tale (of sorts) which has all the elements needed to turn it into a soppy little film. Picture this. Boy in open top red Porsche meets girl in Ferrari on a busy road - Ferrari speeds away, Porsche follows and thus begins a cross continental pursuit and a story arc that would make any Director from the Subcontinent proud. Additions like ‘Caste Off’ and ‘A Good Eye’ give the requisite multicultural tinge to this trek that takes one across Europe, America and South Asia.

The fictional side of the book is equally charming. Some like ‘Politically Correct’ deal with a deputy bank manager Arnold Pennyworthy’s very understandable paranoia in a post 7/7 Britain and the alarm bells set off by that dodgy looking new neighbour. Others like the ‘Blind Date’ are short and sweet.

Are some of these offerings predictable? Yes. But they are enjoyable nevertheless. The author is also seen playing with the supernatural in one case where a certain ‘Mr. De Ath’ comes up with an interesting proposition for the dying Chairman.

‘There may not be a book in every one of us but there is so often a dashed good short story’, Archer happily proclaims in the foreword. ‘And Thereby Hangs a Tale’ is a nifty little book that is both smart and sassy and thoroughly satisfying.

By: Jeffrey Archer

Reviewed By: Afrah Jamal

Paperback: 400 pages

Publisher: Macmillan; Export ed edition (May 21, 2010)

ISBN-10: 0230711227

ISBN-13: 978-0230711228

Price: Rs. 595

Genre: Fiction

And Thereby hangs a tale – Exclusive South Asian Edition

Link to http://libertybook.wordpress.com/2010/08/02/150/

Saturday, July 24, 2010

BOOK REVIEW (Original) of IMRAN SERIES

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

The House of Fear – An Imran Series Novel....Author: Ibn-e Safi ....Translated by: Bilal Tanveer

Once upon a time, a very long time ago, a little girl read what she thought was the best Urdu mystery novel ever. It starred three boys and was set in Thailand. Years later, she came across the same novel. This time it was in English and starred three girls. The novel was Nancy Drew. Needless to say, Carolyn Keene’s version had come first. But while some were getting duped into buying forgeries, others were lining up for one Ibne Safi – writer extraordinaire, King of Urdu Crime Fiction who reigned over both sides of the divide from 1950’s - 1980.

Asrar Narvi has penned hundreds of novels under the nome de plume of Ibn-e Safi. He is probably best known for creating two highly popular Whodunits - ‘Imran Series’ & ‘Jasoosi Duniya’ (The World of Espionage).

‘Imran Series’ was developed in the early 1950’s after Safi moved to Pakistan. It became a runaway success. The saga may have officially ended but Safi’s characters lived on as other enterprising writers took over and kept the franchise afloat.

Now Ali Imran makes a comeback with ‘The House of Fear’ as the original franchise has been revived by Bilal Tanweer who introduces the English speaking world to Ibn-e Safi’s work.

Ali Imran - the star of Imran Series is an amalgam of Sherlock Holmes, Bertie Wooster, Hercules Poirot, James Bond and a few other leading men from that era. Regardless of his questionable lineage and dubious origins, a simplistic hero from the 1950’s charmed his way into millions of homes.

Born into privilege, this handsome young man is a poor mans Wooster (a la PG Wode House) who confounds both friends and family. ‘The only time he doesn’t appear crazy is when he is silent’ observes one character. Not a promising beginning for a would-be super sleuth. But a great one for the head of Intelligence.

Youngsters quickly embraced the morally upright, defective - detective/spy with a moronic sense of humour, a habit of misquoting poetry, and a general air of incompetence.

The two specimens presented here - ‘The House of Fear’ & ‘Shootout at the Rocks’, are mildly entertaining but not on a cerebral level. In one Imran must discover why dead bodies keep turning up on abandoned property and in the other, he investigates how a 3 inch wooden monkey ties in with a 200 year old gang.

To be fair, some of the magic may have been lost in translation. Being unable to judge the beauty of Safi’s prose puts one at a slight disadvantage. Not everything that is funny in Urdu retains its integrity in English.

Newcomers to the series must make some allowances for the time in which it was set. Karachi was a cosmopolitan city and Imran’s world comes duly equipped with all the trappings of a super sleuth where Chinese villains, British house guests, Czech visitors run amok & frequenting Tip Top Night Club is considered normal. Also, intelligence agencies were still revered and the fact that the protagonist is the son of DG Intelligence and leads a double life as the formidable Chief of Secret Service – X2 and his usual asinine self is not the turn off it would be say , 40 years later.

Given the time period and the circumstances, one can understand the initial appeal. Pakistan was young; people were easily dazzled. Allies acted like well, allies and rose coloured glasses were the rage. What appears to be pretty standard fare must have been revolutionary for its times. Another factor could be that these lightweight mysteries were more like novellas and fans did not have to wait very long for the ‘big reveal’. Finally, like all good heroes, this one always saves the day, but is modest, letting his friend at the Intelligence Bureau – the good Superintendent, take credit. What ever the reason, Imran captured the imagination of a nation and Safi’s characters quirky or otherwise became household names. Both these stories promise a few hours of harmless fun and a chance to revisit the good old days.

The most striking thing about this publication is that the Queen of Crime Fiction’s name appears on the cover. Agatha Christie’s glowing tribute (an excellent endorsement!) merely signifies that she was aware of Safi’s stature in the Subcontinent. Which is nice. But even if this author reportedly out sold her, Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, PG Wodehouse, Arthur Conan Doyle’s of this world are in a league of their own – specialists in their field.

Writers like Safi, however are in a different league. They occupy a special place in the hearts of millions not just for having provided a great escapist fantasy but also for making the most threadbare of plots memorable. The author was clearly inspired by the greats who came before him. But he also managed to inspire countless who came afterwards. He has left an impressive body of work and according to his son, Ahmad Safi, other Urdu crime fiction writers have been unable to better his sales record.

Safi’s books are not about the destination but the journey. Ali Imran religiously reported for duty every month and kept generations entranced for over 20 years. That people continue to be drawn to Imran’s madness is testament to Safi’s genius. 29 years after the series ended and nearly half a century later the ‘Imran Series’ is still going strong.

Format: PaperBack
ISBN: 9788184000979
Publisher: Random House
No of Pages: 254
Retail price: Rs. 395.00

Ali Imran - The Comeback Kid
Reviewed By: Afrah Jamal

DAILY TIMES JULY 24, 2010

Saturday, July 17, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: My Life With The Taliban

Author: Abdul Salam Zaeef
Translation by: Alex Strick Van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Afghan Taliban’s claim to fame: obliterating 6th century monuments at Bamian, reactivating a medieval code of conduct and hosting the US’s most wanted man. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) has been lambasted for grooming this force of nature and further accused of aiding and abetting it after 2001, but if one founding member is to be believed, they have little to do with the set up. The Taliban were already in their gestation phase and simply moved in to fill the (moral) void left by outgoing invaders and incoming outlaws.

This is the story of the singing, dancing mujahideen that evolved into a dreaded inquisition squad which ran Afghanistan for five years, as told by Mullah Zaeef — who was once a high profile member of the said squad. But he is neither a defector nor an apologist and remains an ardent supporter of his former colleagues. Originally written in Pashto, his memoir has been translated by Alex Strick Van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn — permanent residents of Kandahar and apparently the only two westerners brave enough to live there sans elaborate security measures.

The man, who went from being a veteran and Talib to ambassador before ending up as Prisoner 306 at Guantanamo Bay prison, has a selective memory. “The Taliban had given beauty to the region,” he gushes, hastening to add some feel good stories and touching imagery to the terrifying mythology. He contrasts the world he inherited as a child raised under the shadow of the Soviets with the land he defended as a jihadist, and one he helped forge as a young Talib.

Though Zaeef will paint his movement in the brightest possible colours, casting the Taliban as saints and Pakistan as the sinner, the Afghan nation can testify to the Taliban’s bleak history after 1994.

Ironically, both Pakistan and the US are hauled over the coals for failing to uphold basic human rights. As for the Taliban’s appalling record, the only two instances included are intended to convey their open-mindedness and sense of fairplay. Where does the destruction of Buddhist statues fit in all this? He believes that act to be legally sound but unnecessary. And other atrocities? A heartening portrayal of “life returning to normal” is preceded by the casual observation that “women are no longer working and men are growing beards”. He did not issue these controversial edicts but continues to endorse them. The West’s fear of madrassas (which stems from a real enough place) invokes his ire. At one point, he argues that efforts at giving equal rights to men and women prove that Americans are the enemies of Islam. Such pronouncements merely demonstrate that, while the Taliban may not be seeking an al Qaeda-style new world order, they are also not the kind of people that sustain life as we know it.

Zaeef’s description of an Afghanistan under occupation is no paradise either and unnerving details of a common man’s plight have the power to widen the gulf between the Afghans and the rest of the world.

While the latest news about improvement in the quality of life at infamous ‘Gitmo’ may be reassuring — apparently they can now watch the World Cup, use Skype and read Twilight (!) — the sobering reality as seen through the inmates’ eyes will dismay many.

As ambassador, he had issues with Pakistan’s way of doing business. No doubt, some of these grievances will be legitimate — Pakistan’s law and order is nothing to be proud of. But, as far as the refugee crisis is concerned, Zaeef can barely contain his displeasure at Peshawar’s governor who rightfully points out that these people should not have been around in the first place, given that Afghanistan had a government and security. There is a portion where Zaeef is warned by the ISI against assassinating Musharraf and he, in turn, suggests that they were merely trying to find a scapegoat, but soon after mentions the fatwa he read out where assassination is the central idea and Musharraf appears to be the primary target. This man got burned by Pakistan, which explains away some, but not all, of the hostility towards his former mentors and benefactors.

Zaeef, when he is not monitoring the spin cycle or adjusting the lighting around this carefully crafted narrative, does have lucid moments as he speculates about the future of his country and the demerits of American-Afghan policies. The Taliban and al Qaeda are on the same wavelength but not necessarily the same (war) path. Have the Taliban been mislabelled? Not really. But have they been mishandled? Perhaps. A tribal leader famously asked the commander of British troops, “I can see how easy it was for you to get your troops in but what I do not understand is how you are planning to get them out.” That was 1892. The classic tale of ‘immovable object meets an unstoppable force’ is in its umpteenth season. Nine years into the war, the Taliban are not a spent force but an active threat. This book helps people understand what keeps them ticking.

Columbia University Press; Pp 360; Rs 995

Sunday, July 11, 2010

BOOK REVIEW (Urdu Audio): Mehwar Ki Talash

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, July 10, 2010

Author: Sabuha Khan
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

They head to other lands that guarantee the freedoms promised by their own and mould themselves in the image of the people that provide them. The immigrants’ transformation is complete but their quest for identity has just begun.

Sabuha Khan, a Pakistani, is on a quest of her own as she steps into Toronto — a city she wryly observes to be ninth from the top from a place that is probably ninth from the bottom. She has witnessed the impact of such a decision firsthand when her children moved away but now casts a wider net to allow other characters to step forward and add to the tale.

The book includes interviews with fellow Pakistanis and other nationalities spread out over three continents to determine the collective toll the act of migration takes on families and the ensuing identity crisis. This also gives her the opportunity to assess the lure of the West while examining the pull of the East: one is inexplicable, the other is irresistible.

The resultant essay is part travelogue, part history lesson and part cautionary tale with a powerful message and a not-so-gentle reminder of our failings as a nation. Afterwards, one has a better understanding of what it is like to be a stranger in a strange land, a misfit in one’s own home, an unwelcome guest without bearings or a simple wanderer savouring the delights of other cultures.

The fact that her people seem to acquire a newfound respect for the law the instant they descend on foreign soil provides her with an opening to analyse Pakistanis outside their natural habitat and take stock of the country they leave behind. Consequently, the plight of an average citizen will also be given a place in this narrative.

There could be a million reasons to abandon one’s home, and the majority of her subjects had traded up. Whether they are seeking sanctuary, a better life or a change of scenery, she finds that most will readily surrender their motherland but are reluctant to part with their heritage.

They swear allegiance to one land but harbour a secret affection for another. This intriguing phenomenon makes her wonder who they identify with deep down, how long does it take for a person to assimilate or be accepted and if they ever really are?

According to the writer, how they see themselves and how they will be perceived by their hosts are two very different things. She believes that immigrants, no matter how well entrenched they are in society, continue to represent their country of origin despite what their passport claims.

Apparently, globalisation ensures that they feel at home wherever they live but something within determines where they truly belong. We meet Pakistanis in the throes of nostalgia, holding onto precious memories but right beside them are their countrymen who cannot hide the contempt for this land and seek to distance themselves from all things Pakistani; Greeks and Chinese, fiercely protective of their heritage, join in followed closely by the Frenchman who considers himself a citizen of the world and, yet, remains French at heart.

The travelogue portion sketches the home to which these people remain forever tethered and draws contrasts with the place they now inhabit. One welcomes them with open arms but insists they become American. Another allows them to be who they are and celebrates diversity. Still another refuses to give them nationality and considers them outsiders. She takes readers inside what she calls the gilded cage that gives a Third World √©migr√© access to every conceivable luxury and the right tools to carve out a place in life; the sole caveat in this scenario is that “everything is mortgaged from their car to their home to their lives”.

This is not a senseless indictment of other cultures but a well-balanced analysis that attempts to showcase the best and worst of both worlds. She scrutinises her own land for signs of growing fault lines, and corners Pakistanis who have decided to stick around, trying to make them acknowledge their role in making or breaking this country. The book also compares the irrational fear of modernisation with the rational fear of a new world order that threatens to remake everything and everyone.

Mehwar Ki Talash is an introspective look at the effects of a centuries-old phenomenon on the modern day immigrant.

The audio book version is in Sabuha Khan’s voice. She has spent 10 years as a newscaster for Pakistan Television (PTV) (from the early 1970s to the early 1980s), which makes her an ideal narrator. (The book can also be ordered from shuaibsabuha@yahoo.com.)

Sabuha has also authored Apna Des Apney Log and Dilli Se Defence. Mehwar Ki Talash is her fourth book and her second audio CD.

Academy Bazyaft; Pp 224; Rs 250 and Rs 350 (audio book)

Saturday, July 3, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Beatrice and Virgil: A Novel Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, July 03, 2010

Author: Yann Martel

According to a website, the Middle East, race relations, gun control, origins of man and religion are among the top 10 things that can never be discussed online “without serious drama following shortly thereafter”.

“The systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of approximately six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborator,” otherwise known as the Holocaust, is number four on this list.

Their reasoning is simple: whichever side you are on, this one topic is a guaranteed firestarter.

Yann Martel is not just talking about the fourth item on the list but is also seeking a new venue altogether to stage his ‘representation’ of that event. To know how he intends to take on such a delicate subject and why it took him eight years to write another book, one must meet Henry.

Henry L’Hote, the main character of this book, is an author headed back in time to retrieve the essence of the Holocaust — he looks suspiciously like Yann Martel, an author bound for similar shores. Henry’s idea will get rejected in the storybook world and Martel’s allegorical treatment, that attempted to push boundaries with a novel and essay, has already been through a similar ordeal. According to an interview by Mick Brown that appeared in the Telegraph, Martel’s original book consisted of a play and an essay. After the rejection, he rewrote the entire novel, working fragments of the play in with the other elements to create Beatrice and Virgil.

Henry/Yann will lay the groundwork at the outset to defend their controversial approach and explain why they believe that interpretation of historical events is vital. His reasoning is simpler: “No poetic licence was taken with — or given to — the Holocaust; it was always historical, factual, documentary, anecdotal, testimonial, literal.” Until now.

Henry, like Martel, has dared to blur the lines between fact and fiction with a flipbook that will have two covers, two sets of distinct pages attached to a common spine, upside down and back to back to each other. He is convinced that “fiction and non-fiction are not so easily divided” and “if history does not become a story, it dies to everyone”. In his mind, “fiction may not be real but it is true; it goes beyond a garland of facts to get to emotional and psychological truth.”

The protagonist has it all figured out but unfortunately he hits a brick wall because Martel’s fictional world also imposes the same limitations. Henry makes a useful spokesperson, standing by, ready with explanations to help readers grasp Yann’s concept while he duels with his own editors (four), a historian and a bookseller trying to make them see the merits of his own approach. They, in turn, give all the reasons his flipbook model is a “complete and un-publishable failure”.

Poor Henry must renounce the idea. Undeterred by his failed flipbook experiment, a determined Yann sets out to prove them wrong and show them why it is imperative to capture that particular instance, not just with a historian’s preciseness but also with an artist’s flair. He stops to give instances where “artists have taken vast sprawling tragedies before, found its heart and represented it in a non-literal compact way. The unwieldy encumbrance of history was thus reduced and packed in a suitcase.” He goes on to imagine “art as a suitcase — light, portable, essential” and wonders why “such a treatment was not possible, or deemed necessary, with the greatest tragedy of Europe’s Jews?”

Having made a strong case for his ideas, Man Booker prize winner and best-selling author Yann Martel can proceed with the original plan; manipulate Henry — the highly successful writer — helping him find a way to scale the wall of resistance put up by an ignorant world, that will allow them to revisit and ‘interpret’ the horror and guide readers through the darkest chapters of the 20th century.

He uses unorthodox methods and the same topsy-turvy logic to achieve what his character initially failed to do. A disillusioned and dejected Henry allows the author to set a course that takes him away from a disastrous lunch to an unnamed city and, as the Holocaust slowly recedes in the distance, a way to represent the tragedy as an artful metaphor appears on the horizon.

The book is beautifully crafted with a riveting storyline that will take a circuitous path before it returns to the original premise of framing the Holocaust differently.

The author, whose last book was the internationally acclaimed Man Booker prize wining Life of Pi, is on a slippery slope here. Yet, despite the hostile reception, negative reviews and the disturbing end, Beatrice and Virgil cannot be dismissed lightly. The book is impossible to forget.


Spiegel & Grau; First Edition; Pp 224; Rs 850