Sometimes a great book gets shouldered out of the way by bigger, bestseller books. It sits on the shelf, crying out to be read and enjoyed, but somehow gets overlooked. Eventually, if nobody reads the book it is discarded from the collection to make room for newer titles. Then the poor little book gets put in the book sale, and, if it's lucky, gets sold for a dollar.
Have I drummed up enough sympathy for these books yet? Well, it's not too late to rescue some of them from their book sale fate! Here's one example that I ran across a few weeks ago: A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson, published and acquired by the library in 2008. In spite of the title, this is not a guide book. However, it does take place in East Africa (Kenya, to be exact), and birds are involved.
Mr. Malik, a quiet, dear man and dedicated bird watcher, is in love with the leader of the Tuesday morning bird walks--the widow Rose Mbikwa. He has finally talked himself into inviting her to the annual Nairobi Hunt Club Ball (by mail, of course), when the flashy Harry Khan arrives on the scene. Harry can be entertaining, but Mr. Malik was usually the butt of his jokes when they were in school in their younger days so he'd rather steer clear of Mr. Kahn. It turns out that Harry wants to invite Rose to the ball, too. How can this be decided without putting Ms. Mbikwa in the awkward position of having to refuse one of them?
Mr. Malik has frequented the Asadi Club for years, and, much to his dismay, Harry shows up with the sister of one of the members. After hearing that both men want to escort the same woman to the ball, the club members devise a competition that will determine which of the two may ask her first: the privilege will go to the one who identifies the most species of birds in one week. The two men begin the competition with very different game plans, and the outcome might surprise you.
What I liked most about this book was the charming cast of characters, and the way they are woven into the background of Kenya's physical and political landscape. As the story moves forward we learn about past events in the characters' lives that have affected the present. Mr. Malik may appear to be quiet and unassuming, but he has much deeper sides to him--some funny, some serious. Even the minor characters are brilliantly painted by the author.
Another interesting feature is that the tale is told by a narrator who interacts with the reader periodically by asking questions or calling attention to certain elements in the scene that he is describing. It's an unusual "voice," but one that works very well in this story.
This is a very quick read, not only because of the number of pages, but because you are drawn through the story by the mishaps and the successes that will surely impact the outcome of the competition between Mr. Malik and Harry. And, of course, the birds are ever-present. I know that I will never forget a certain African bird called the hadada; after you read this story you'll understand why...!
Other overlooked titles recommended by the staff are Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea, Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, Fireflies in December by Jennifer Valent, and Life is Short but Wide by J. California Cooper. Take a chance!
Recommended by Angela Prandini