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Paperback Provocateurs

The quirky titles of some fine books 

You can’t judge a book by its cover, pill but what about its title? I found some non­ fiction books with highly quirky titles that perhaps could have been dismissed as a publishing house’s gimmick were it not for the fact that, in each case, the books are damn good – worthy of the distinction of their namesakes. Here, quirky reader, are my favourite books with quirky titles!

Becoming China’s Bitch And Nine More Catastrophes We Must Avoid Right Now (Author: Peter Kiernan)

Of course a book with a title like that is going to catch your attention. After all, a former partner at global investment­banking giant Goldman Sachs is discussing how the United States needs to avoid 10 major ‘catastrophes’, the most urgent one being becoming archrival China’s, er, bitch. But the book is not about propagandist China­bashing. It’s a pragmatic look at how America, the world’s economic powerhouse, has ‘lost its mojo’ and is getting ‘semiconsciously dependent’ on China on the economic front. Author Peter Kiernan, a self­described ‘Radical­Centrist’, analyses the reasons sustaining America’s ‘national paralysis’ (including ineffectual bipartisanship, irresponsible lobbying, influential, biased think tanks), and China’s dramatic rise to economic superstardom.


Emergency Sex And Other Desperate Measures: A True Story From Hell On Earth (Authors: Heidi Postlewait, Kenneth Cain & Andrew Thomson)

One of the best investments in my library to date, Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures is a memoir of three United Nations staffers whose paths repeatedly cross at the ‘peacekeeping hotspots’ of Cambodia, Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Haiti and Liberia in the early 1990s. Narrated in turn by the author­protagonists, the book follows Heidi Postlewait (‘ridiculously good­looking’, shejoins the UN straight after her divorce from a Manhattan­based modelling agent), Kenneth Cain (a Harvard Law School grad) and Andrew Thomson (a New Zealand­born doctor who goes to work in Cambodia after meeting a survivor of the Khmer Rouge genocide in med school) and their journeys from naïveté to despair and cynicism as they come to terms with the inner (read corrupt) workings of the bureaucratic behemoth that is the UN. Each one joins the UN with the desire to make the world a better place. But travelling from one foreign mission to another, this idealism unravels in the real world of kickbacks, incompetence and cowardice at the highest levels of power. Critical of the UN’s policies and peacekeeping failures, the book is also an intensely open and honest account of the authors’ personal struggles with love & loss, faith (in God, and ‘the system’) in the background of civil war and genocide. (Streets’ Trivia: The UN, under the Secretary­Generalship of Kofi Annan, considered the contents of this book to be too offensive and wanted it ‘suppressed’.)


My Friend The Fanatic: Travels With A Radical Islamist (Author: Sadanand Dhume)

Travelogue writing from the frontlines of the world’s most dangerous zones is a fad that picked up post 9/11, what with journalists ‘embedding’ themselves with members of the political pariah – terrorists, Islamists, terrorist­Islamist sympathisers. My Friend The Fanatic is one such book where Indian­American author Sadanand Dhume travels through the length and breadth of Indonesia with Herry Nurdi, the editor of the country’s foremost fundamentalist magazine who hero­worships Osama bin Laden. The story unfolds through very different eyes – Dhume’s atheist, Western­educated ones and Nurdi’s conservative Western­wary ones. The book introduces readers to contrasting landscapes within a fast­changing society through characters like Abu Bakar Bashir (the head of Jemaah Islamiyah, the Southeast Asian branch of al Qaeda), Inul Daratista (a popular singer and inventor of a risqué dance called ‘drilling’), televangelist AA Gym, sex workers, sorcerers and politicians. Serious yet funny, this book is a fine piece of travel literature that explores the contradictions of globalisation And Islamisation in 21 st century Indonesia.


The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa In Theory & Practice (Author: Christopher Hitchens)

In our uber­sensitive world, the road is usually a long and solitary one for those who choose to go against general perceptions of religions and their advocates. And to write a critical book on someone who has been globally lauded and recognised for her contributions to society’s weak and downtrodden is by no means an easy feat. I’m talking about renowned atheist Christopher Hitchens and his investigations on Mother Teresa’s life and works that culminated in his controversial book controversially titled The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa In Theory & Practice. This book is essentially a condemnation of Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity (which he calls a cult that promotes suffering). He alleges her to be a political opportunist and dogmatist who acted to the detriment of the very people she was claiming to serve. Other charges include her support for unscrupulous figures like Haitian dictator Jean­Claude Duvalier and disgraced former financial executive Charles Keating (accused of defrauding investors of billions of dollars). Read this book only if your sensibilities aren’t going to get offended!


The Wisdom Of Whores (Author: Elizabeth Pisani)

“When people ask me what I do, I say ‘Sex and drugs’…” says the preface to former Reuters correspondent­turned­‘accidental epidemiologist’ Elizabeth Pisani’s book The Wisdom of Whores. The author is consciously provocative because “saying I do sex and drugs saves me explaining that epidemiology is the study of how diseases spread in a population…And it is a good conversation starter. Everybody has something to say about sex and drugs.” This book is meant for people not involved with AIDS in any form to know about the disease. It provides a microscopic view into the shady alleys of Jakarta, Hong Kong, Thailand and Nairobi with vivid descriptions of Ms Pisani’s interviews with pimps, prostitutes, transvestites, drug dealers and users there. While it primarily deals with that group of people who’re at the root of the disease, the book has a parallel narrative that deals with the business and politics of AIDS. It provides a scathing criticism of the global community’s failure to prevent the endemic from spreading and shows how the AIDS programme is being influenced by people with political/religious agendas (from Muslim clerics in Southeast Asia and Africa to rightwing American politicians.) The Wisdom of Whores was meant to be a literary blitzkrieg – it shocked and awed. Read it for its well­researched content and Ms Pisani’s passionate take on a subject most people are either too prudish to talk about or have absolutely no time for.