Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Books I Read in February and March 2008

The Fourth Watcher, by Timothy Hallinan is the second in a series set in Bangkok. Travel writer Poke Rafferty and the cast of characters I became so fond of in the first novel, A Nail Through the Heart return in this crime thriller when a ghost from Rafferty’s past re-enters his life and places his new family in danger. Tim continues to astound me with his deft handling of multiple story lines and with his interesting and nuanced characters. I again found myself drawn into the underworld in Bangkok and I continue to learn bits and pieces about eastern attitudes and culture. The Fourth Watcher has a scheduled release date of June of this year. Yes, that’s right. I had an Advance Reader Copy (ARC)! I had two back to back business trips while reading The Fourth Watcher and took every opportunity to flash my ARC around and show it to people so I could tell them that I know real, live published authors and only very important people get to have an “unedited proof”. I showed it off to Patti on my trip to San Antonio and she was appropriately inspired by the coolness of it all. Or at least she humored me.

Gang Leader for a Day, by Sudhir Venkatesh is a the non-fiction account written of the decade this self-proclaimed “rogue sociologist” spent conducting research in one of the most infamous public housing projects in Chicago. Venkatesh became acquainted with a gang leader and his associates, as well as an intricate cast of characters that included prostitutes, Chicago Housing Authority building managers, Housing Police, clergymen and tenants. The book reveals a fascinating picture of the hidden economy and organization found within a society immersed in urban poverty. This was an impulse purchase from my local independent bookstore. I was trying to understand gang culture and I thought this book might provide some insights. This was a fascinating book and I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to gain a better understanding of a world most of us know very little about.

Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee. Coetzee is a Nobel Prize winning South African ex-pat who has been living in Australia for a number of years. To call this novel bleak would be an understatement. I wanted to read Coetzee because I kept running into references to his work. He’s undeniably a gifted writer and I found this novel, set in post-Apartheid South Africa disturbing, to say the least, but also strangely compelling. I’ve got another Coetzee novel on my TBR stack and I’m sure I’ll want to read it before the year ends.

The Double Bind, by Chris Bohjalian. Two things led me to this one. The first is that it was a selection from the Odyssey Book Store signed first edition book club that I belong to so it was already in my TBR stack. Then I read an interview with Chris Bohjalian at The Writers’ Group blog and he was so charming, I wanted to read the book, and I’m glad I did. There are a number of elements that make this an especially innovative novel, but probably the biggest is the incorporation of characters from Fitzgerald’s, The Great Gatsby. A very interesting premise and an ending I didn’t see coming. Warning: Ello, I’m talking to you – do not read the last few pages of the book until you get to them or you’ll ruin the book for yourself!

Torch, by Cheryl Strayed. I first read about Cheryl Strayed at Kate Hopper’s blog. I subsequently ordered the “Best of” collections in order to read her essays and liked them so much that I ordered her debut novel, Torch. The book follows the path of a family in a small town in Minnesota from the terminal cancer diagnosis of Teresa through the year or so following her death. The separate journeys through grief for Teresa’s husband and two children are genuine, honest, painful and at times, funny. Strayed is one of the most honest writers I’ve ever read and her prose is simple and beautiful.

The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall was a recommended read from The Electric Orchid Hunter when I posted my January reads. The nice thing about book recommendations from friends in the blogosphere is that it’s pretty easy to guess whether or not you’ll like the types of books they do by looking at their profiles. The EEO has several books that I loved listed, so I was anxious to read this one. You either love this type of book or you don’t. It would be easy to pigeon hole this with the growing category of stories that begin with a young amnesiac trying to piece together his past, but that would be a vast oversimplification. This book is Memento meets Fight Club meets the movie Jaws, taken to the next level and all written in flawless prose. Still confused? It’s part sci-fi, part literary thriller, part love story, part adventure story. I really enjoyed the book and expect to see a lot more from this talented English writer.

How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, by Pierre Bayard. I picked this up because how could I not? I’m a sucker for books about reading. Somewhat tongue in cheek at times and occasionally a little heavy handed with references, Bayard’s assertion is that one doesn’t need to actually read a book in order to have a good grasp of it and in order to intelligently discuss it. In fact, he goes so far as to say that reading the book may even be an impediment to doing so. He refers to the “collective library” and our own “inner library” and the significance of understanding where a particular book fits in the collective library. It was a pretty good read, but I’d only recommend it to the nerdiest of book nerds.

Meyer, by Stephen Dixon. Somewhere I stumbled across an online article about Stephen Dixon and his latest novel, Meyer. Dixon has written close to thirty novels and has been described as “a hipper Saul Bellow”. How could I not be intrigued by that? Dixon writes the kind of novels that I love, but that a lot of people do not. It’s difficult to describe his style and rather than try, I’d recommend the article I’ve linked to. Meyer is about a writer enduring an episode of writer’s block. He explores a series of episodes in his life and imposes a series of "what-ifs" that change the outcomes and give him story fodder to consider. I often say that I’m tired of novels about writers, but the truth is, I can’t seem to resist them. I’d almost describe what Dixon does as experimental fiction.

My TBR stack continues to grow at a faster rate than I’m able to get through it, but so far I haven’t found a twelve-step program for what ails me. What’s always is a surprise to me is what I’ll read next and I wonder if anybody else is as flaky about this as I am. I have TBR books piled on top of book cases in my office and I tend to stack a half dozen of them on my bedside table. These are the primary candidates for what I’ll read next, but I won’t always even stick with these. I guess it all depends on what I’m in the mood for when I’m ready to start a new book. Before I started Meyer (the last book I read), I literally lined it up with Saturday, by Ian McEwan, The Fall of Rome, by Martha Southgate and How the Dead Dream, by Lydia Millet and re-read all the book jackets before I chose Meyer.

Before I start the next one, I’ll glance over the entire stack and then at the short stack on the bedside table, but I have no idea what I'll start.

What was the best book you read recently?

How do you decide what book to read next?

And a final note: Don't forget to celebrate National Poetry Month!


moonrat said...

it really is disturbing, but i did like DISGRACE a lot. my "favorite" Coetzee is, i think, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MICHAEL K. although that is equally disturbing. i thought WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS was pretty good (but disturbing) and i didn't like ELIZABETH COSTELLO at all.

Charles Gramlich said...

The only thing I've read here is the "Gang Leader" stuff, although I read it mostly as articles and not the whole book. We live in a world where there are a lot of good books available and I'm happy for that.

Carleen Brice said...

I just read The English American by Alison Larkin. I chose it because it's about an adoptee who finds her birth parents. Since my wip is about an adoptee and birth-sister relationship I couldn't resist. It's really charming. I found out in VA that Alison is a client of Bella's!

Patti said...

you are prolific in your reading, either that or i am a total slacker. i'm going with the latter.

Melissa Marsh said...

How do I pick which book to read next? By my mood. I recently read a rash of rather depressing books and really, haven't read much since. I picked up a novel called "e" (can't remember the author now) that is really funny, as I'm in the MOOD for funny.

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Ooh, I read TORCH last fall--I'd met Cheryl Strayed at a festival in April. I loved it. Just beautifully written.

I picked up EAT, PRAY, LOVE and am enjoying it. I sort of need some Zen-like thinking in my life right now (not that it's zen, but the whole meditation, letting go idea).

steve said...

I lisened to Eat, Pray, Love on CD about a year ago. I came away thinking that the author was far too wealthy and far too self-absorbed, but that she wrote so well and had such a lovely speaking voice that I forgave her for it and was taken into her world.

Right now I'm listening to (perhaps) the oldest book in the world, The Epic of Gilgamesh.

I'm still amazed that you're abel to read so much in a month.

P.S. I did a post on Donne on his saint's day, Mar. 31, but that's one day shy of National Poetry Month.

Lisa said...


I'm glad you can relate to what seems an odd mixture -- it was disturbing, but I want to read more. The one I picked up to read next is SLOW MAN. This one is also sure to be uplifting -- about a photographer who loses his leg in a bicycle accident.


The author is pretty prolific and everything he's written sounds really fascinating.


Sounds like a winner -- and you got to meet the author. VA sounds like it was exhausting and very fun!


Believe me, I'm a slacker in all kinds of other areas. For every book I read, that's a few hours I wasn't cleaning grout or some other thing I don't like doing!


That's why my "what I'll read next" selections vary so much. I hadn't considered that.


I thought so too. That's so cool that you read it and got to meet her.

I keep hearing good things about that book but for some reason I haven't yet been tempted to pick it up (could it be the other 6,000 unread books lying around?)


Oh, see now I'm really not tempted to read it!

Gilgamesh -- Shauna Roberts did an excellent post on Gilgamesh a few months ago. You may want to check it out.

Don't be too amazed -- this is TWO months of books. Tim is the one who reads more books in a month than anybody I've ever seen.

I'm a little behind on commenting, but I did read your last two posts and haven't had the chance to leave my thoughts yet. I'll get back over there and do it before long though.

Carleen Brice said...

No, I didn't meet Alison. At lunch with Bella, I mentioned the book and she told me. But Alison will be at the HR TC soon.

Sustenance Scout said...

...which is why that title is so familiar. Another TC signing to look forward to! Lisa, your reading selections continue to boggle my mind. I'm plowing through the 07 O Henry collection and loving it through and through. Then I'm back to Franice Proses's Reading Like a Writer. Thanks for the new additions to my TBR list! K.

Shauna Roberts said...

That book about gangs sounds fascinating. I hadn't heard of it before.

I read Startide Rising by David Brin this month. It takes place hundreds of years in the future when humans have genetically engineered chimps and dolphins to be sentient. The first dolphin-manned (-dolphined???) spaceship finds a graveyard of ancient spaceships, and suddenly every sentient species in the universe is after the dolphins' ship. Wonderful worldbuilding and great aliens.

Ello said...

Are you psychic or something?!!! How did you know I have this to read? I haven't started yet which was why I looked at your review so eagerly and then WHAM! a warning for me! How did you know?

Wow! Thanks, I will follow your advice!

Riss said...

I read "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"...twice. It was awesome. It is a wonderful, sad and really clever myth that uses the 9/11 mess as its anchor point. I usually don't read books that have that as a tenet but I was mailed it as a present and I LOVE it. Great stuff. (c: I also read Geek Love recently. That was even cooler. Disturbing and beautiful. (c: Happy writing.

Lisa said...


Looking forward to hearing about your trip.


It really is, especially because the author is an actual sociologist. It makes it much more compelling and feels more objective to me than a memoir or some other format exploring the same subject matter.

One of these days I'm going to have to try a book like STARTIDE RISING. You'll have to recommend the best of the best -- although THE RAW SHARK TEXTS took me out of my normal novel comfort zone and I really liked it.


Yes I am psychic and I know you're a last page peeker. :)


I loved that one too. I also loved EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED. I've been hearing about GEEK LOVE for a long time and now and now that you've given it a "disturbing and beautiful", I may not be able to resist reading it.

I am inexplicably drawn to disturbing stuff. I won't even try to figure out what that says about me.

Welcome back! I'm behind on my Dickens reading and writing, but hope to be back to it soon. Another business trip out of town next week isn't helping :)

Shauna Roberts said...

Lisa, you might like The Carpet Makers by Andreas Eschbach, which I blogged about at http://shaunaroberts.blogspot.com/search?q=Die+Haarteppichknupfer. It's not as long as most space operas, and it's got a literary tilt that may appeal to you.

I've never read the Honor Harrington books bu Davod Weber, but since you were in the Service once, you may like these books about a female starship captain.

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf