Monday, August 15, 2011

The 27th Reading List

July 2011

I belong to a monthly book club that once was the Dim Sum Book Club because we met for Dim Sum, sat around a big round table, chose our little tidbits of pork or shrimp, and talked about the workings of one novel or another, to the grand total of ten bucks per person for plenty of food.  For January, we were to read The Imperfectionists by Thomas Rachman.  I saw that Amazon was offering it on the Kindle for $5.00.  I had just purchased a Kindle for April whose fibromyalgia makes holding a book an excessive burden on her wrists.

So what’s it like to read a novel on a Kindle?  First, the negatives.  You're not holding a book anymore.  You don't have the tactile sense of length (that a chapter has four more pages to go or that you’ve consumed one half of the book).   The book no longer has a design, no special font, no special symbols to mark a break in scene.  There's no art to the layout, no design to the font, only the words themselves.  You can't easily glance back to the last chapter to check if Ferdinand is married to Gertrude while have the affair with Broomilda or if it’s the other way around.  There’s a search function, but that can only tell you the 110 placed where you can find the word Ferdinand; it doesn’t have the memory of where in the geography of the novel is the key detail to remind you of Ferdinand’s relationships.  In a sense, you have words before your eyes, but you no longer have an entire book in your hands.

Now, the positives.  My friend and colleague, Nathan Burch, told me that you somehow read faster on a Kindle.  That proves to be true.  You just have the words, right in front of you, and you zip right through them.  And you get a true sense of how something works as a story.  You don’t know how long a chapter will be, and a plot complication can be building to something new or leading to the climax of the chapter.  Looking ahead on a Kindle is a pain, so you live in the moment as the story progresses.  In a certain way, the Kindle immerses you more directly into the text and the story.
I'm having trouble reading with glasses, and so the fact that I can find a text size I like makes Kindle great.  I read now without any kind of eyestrain, so this has been my most physically pleasant reading experience in months. For twice the cost of a Kindle I can get prescription reading glasses.

The Kindle comes with the Oxford American dictionary, so it’s a cinch to look up a word (no putting the book down, no grabbing a dictionary or a laptop), and so I’m more prone to double-checking the meaning of a word I know but can’t define (or sometimes looking up I word I just don’t know).  Plus, the Oxford doesn’t only give definitions; it gives the word in sample sentences to help you understand the variations of a word’s meanings.

Which brings me to why Kindle is really great.  I downloaded one of my favorite Spanish novels, Juan Marsé’s Últimas tardes con Teresa.  Last Afternoons with Teresa is an important Spanish novel that's never been translated into English.  But with a Spanish-English dictionary now set as my primary dictionary, I can read it with great ease.  A good thing, because this novel is more vocab heavy than I remember.  Currently, I'm reading the novel much faster than I would if I had an electronic dictionary at my side.  Two minutes per page (a guess) rather than four minutes.

I think if the task of reading wasn't growing in difficulty, I would be less interested in the Kindle.  I would rather support writers and publishers and book designers.  I love the feel of a book.  Fortunately, due to my CPAC grant, I went overboard buying books this year.  David Hartwell, in the pages of the New York Review of Science Fiction, urges readers to buy books.  That I've done, so much so that the only way to honor my investment is to read them.  But I also live in a house whose third floor has so many books that our second floor ceilings have cracks.

But what about The Imperfectionists?  I ate it up, in part thanks to the Kindle, in part thanks to Rachman’s storytelling skills.  The novel is actually a series of stories featuring the staff of a dying international paper located in Rome.  While some Dim Summers complained that there weren’t many details about Rome, Rachman is an efficient storyteller, and you got the feel of being in Rome (and in Paris and on a transatlantic flight).  Rachman has a great sense of place, which he conveys through action rather than through description.  The stories alternate between sad and funny as each character copes with his or her own individual problem.  Each of the stories interlocks in fascinating ways, so each character gains depth as you get to know them through other eyes in other situations.  Rachman worked for a while on the International Herald Tribune, and he does a fine job of capturing the sense of working on a newspaper as the internet age opens a chasm under the feet of those who walk the terrain of the print world. 

I closed the school year with another novel on Kindle for Dim Sum, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.  Like The Imperfectionists, the novel is a set of interrelated stories.  This set of stories effortlessly hops back and forth in time between stories, but the center of the story is Bennie Salazar, a second-rate punk rocker in the 1980’s who becomes a leading (for a while) record producer.  The novel has an A side, about people moving forward in life, and a B side, about people coping with various failures.  Egan has a masterful sense of storytelling, and she’s willing to break the standard issue rules, so one story is in first person, another in third, another in second.  Dim Summers who read the book over time found it be a fractured experience.  I read it over the course of a few days, and all the cross references between different characters resonated like a finely struck chord.    

Although I’m not a big fan of most book awards (the Booker is the only one that seems to come up with a list that sustains itself over the years), A Visit from the Good Squad won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and is currently being developed into a series for HBO. 

I’m not a faithful member of the Dim Sum Book Club.  I sometimes will pick up a book in the library because something about it attracts me.  I’ve heard of the name of the author, I like the cover, or I’ve read some review that had disappeared from my mind until the book was just sitting there on the shelf looking at me.  That’s how I picked up Fame by Daniel Kehlmann, which is, believe it or not, another set of overlapping stories.  It opens with a man returning home from work.  His brand new cell phone rings, and someone asks for “Ralf.”  Then someone else calls, a woman, wanting to make contact with her errant lover.  How he handles that small, everyday problem--plus the question, Who is Ralf?--drew in my attention.  And very subtly, Kehlmann starts to raise issues of fame and how it touches us as well as the people who live with it.  The nine stories in Fame move along at a clip.  European writers don’t always spend as much time as their American counterparts trying to get you deep into the lived experience of the characters, which makes certain European novels short and engaging in different ways than American fiction.  There are nine stories in 175 short pages (the book is smaller than most trade paperbacks).  The best two are the first one, and one about a famous writer traveling with a doctor who’s busying trying to help people in need.

Kehlmann’s most famous book is Measuring the World, a historical novel set in the early 19th century, the birth time of modern science and world revolution.  The novel was a great bestseller in Europe; 1.4 millions copies were purchased in Germany alone.  The novel follows two scientific explorers.  Alexander von Humboldt wants to measure the actual world, to find things and name them.   We follow him and an assistant as they meet peril after adventure while traveling unmapped South America.  On the other hand, the mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss doesn’t want to travel much of anywhere, but his mind wants to understand the shape of things with the same passion that von Humboldt feels.  Measuring the World does captures the mindsets of the early 1800’s; these aren’t modern people transported back into period clothing. But something about capturing the certainties of another time reminds us how uncertain we should be about today’s verities.   If this sounds too portentous, then just read the book because it contains two great adventures, one out in the field, the other in the mind.

Another library pick up was Alain Mabanckou’s Broken Glass, which I first heard about when it was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.  One day, it was sitting there in the library.  I take home lots of library books.  I read a page or two and think, One day or, Not for me.

I read the opening sentences of Broken Glass, was taken in by the voice, by the connective tissue of the long sentences, by the lovely puns that took the form of titles of famous (mostly French) novels (the nice thing about watching a lot of French film is that I’m familiar with a lot of French literature without having read it; there’s a great pun involving Amelie Nothomb’s Fear and Trembling, which I only know through the movie with Sylvie Testud, but, of course, it could also be a reference to Kierkegaard).

Broken Glass is the nickname of a local drunk who clearly had some literary past, and one day the bar owner gives him a journal to write down the stories of those who come to the bar.  I love the first half of the novel as Broken Glass tells those other people’s stories.  They’re sad and they’re funny.  I laughed out loud when I read about the pissing contest.

The second half almost feels old fashioned, as Broken Glass circles in on the events that transformed into him Broken Glass.  The past explains everything about the present, and I'm not sure that notion holds true.  However, I was taken in with the section about the wife, and the bits about the terrible river that seems to wind through all of African history.  I hated one chapter’s too many references to Salinger; this chapter was my least favorite.  I’m not sure I like the pre-determined ending, but I did like the way Broken Glass talks another character out of considering a similar fate.

Another great dark comic novel (and another library pick-up) is Senselessness by Horacio Castellano Moyas (who now lives in exile in Pittsburgh), about a copy-editor who goes crazy while he proofreads the Human Rights report that covers all the political murders in an El Salvador-like country.  Like Broken Glass it’s short; like Broken Glass it has these wonderful sentences that snake through space and swallow everything whole.

Sometimes I borrow from the library.  Sometimes I abduct books. One abduction took place when I walked into the Sherman Library in our middle school, saw a copy of Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi.  Bacigalupi is one of the great new voices in science fiction, and I’d heard good things about his first young adult novel.  I consumed it in an evening.  Andy came home to visit, announced during a discussion that YA novels weren’t serious books, and I handed him Ship Breaker.  He read it just as quickly and decided YA could indeed handle important issues.

The novel is set in a near future when climate change has caused global flooding, and the end of easy oil has caused the collapse of civilization.  Huge oil tankers, now useless, have been washed ashore on new terrain of the Gulf Coast.  Nailer is a young man, small and thin enough, to make his way through the open ducts of such ship, taking out copper wiring and anything else of value that can be sold on market.  Nailer is virtually an orphan.  His mother has died, and his father is a drug addict looking for any opportunity to get ahead.  Nailer himself is hoping for some lucky strike that will help him start a new life.

One day, a terrible hurricane blows a clipper ship ashore, a high tech yacht belonging to a rich girl Nailer and his best friend, Pima, find near dead.  If she doesn’t survive, the ship can be their claim.  If they let her live, she could help them out in other ways or cause them a world of trouble.  Nothing in the novel at this point is certain as Nailer tries to make choices in the hardscrabble society of third world America.

If you like Ship Breaker, you may want to try The Windup Girl, Bacigalupi’s first novel for adults, and winner of the 2010 Nebula Award.  This novel, too, is set in a world where our systems of energy have collapsed and the waters have risen, but it’s a more complex, devastating world.  Whole foodstuffs have been ruined by genetic diseases, and those who have control of the food supply wield great power.  The three main characters are a pirate, infamous for raiding foreign ships in search of illegal technology.  There’s the Wind-Up Girl of the title, an artificial person, created in Japan, and considered both an exotic toy and a despised creature in Thailand.  Finally, there’s the American business who’s purchases on day in a Bangkok market a new fruit with no sign of blister rust or any other genetic affectation.  This means there’s a storehouse somewhere of genetically safe foodstuff somewhere in the area and finding it could lead to a great treasure.

Just as Ship Breaker took me to The Windup Girl, so very often I come to novels because of books I’ve loved in the past.

In 1990, Karen Joy Fowler came to teach creative writing for a spring term at Cleveland Sate University.  They booked her into a small apartment room in the Alcazar, an old-style hotel that served mostly as housing for seniors.  Once a week, April would cook dinner for Karen.  I ended up reading the manuscript of Sarah Canary, a novel that was being rejected by publisher after publisher.  On one level, it didn’t make sense.  The novel was great.  It’s set in late 19th century America, not a mirror held up today, but a different place, almost an alien landscape. The story is about Sarah Canary, a strange woman who seems to sing rather than talk (hence her name), and in the novel we follow various characters who intersect with her wanderings across the Pacific Northwest.  We never find out exactly who Sarah Canary is, but many sf readers will become aware right away that Sarah is an alien visitor, that her birdsong is alien speech, but of course no one in 19873 would be able to conceive of such a notion.   Why had so many publishers rejected Sarah Canary?  Well, the publishers were all science fiction publishers, and the novel didn’t feel anything like a science fiction novel, even though at its heart is a science fiction idea (the mainstream publisher, Henry Holt, however, later published the novel with great enthusiasm).

Much of Karen’s short fiction works along a similar line.  There’s a science fiction or a fantasy idea at the heart of a number of her short works, but the story itself doesn’t feel like science fiction or fantasy.  But it doesn’t quite feel like a realistic fiction either.  Just as magic realism served as a magnifying glass to see reality in a different way, Karen’s approach offers a different kind of prism, a different take on reality, almost a reminder that realism may not be the best lens with which to get at the inner workings of things.  Her recent collection, What I Didn’t See, is all about how we see things.  Each story is riveting in different, often quiet way.  A teenager is taken from her home to be sent to a retraining camp in “The Pelican Brief,” a masterpiece that I handed out to a number of fellow teachers the year it came out in an anthology.  A D.C. boarding house is over-run by strange people in the days following the Civil War.  The title story is a powerful account of a strange safari in Africa, but it’s the 1920’s, they’re hunting a unique animal, and their local attitudes, about animals, about men and women, and about each other sets the stage for what will take place. 

Last year I strongly recommended Fifty Grand by Adrian McKinty, which is one of the best thrillers I’ve read in the last ten years.  It had a strong plot, an indelible protagonist, and a keen sense of place.  This year his new novel, Falling Glass, came out from England (but you can order it on Amazon from a third party for a reasonable price; I was lucky that a doting cousin was willing to pick up a few books for me this spring while she was in Brighton on business).

McKinty’s new novel features Killian, a former criminal taking university classes in Dublin and trying to set his light straight.  But a real estate investment has gone south, he’s on the edge of losing everything, and the opportunity to earn some quick cash by tracking down the missing ex-wife of an important businesses man is too much to resist.  The ex-wife, however, is a drug addict who’s kidnapped her two children and disappeared from the grid.  Killian will discover she’s taken something important with her, someone thing so important that her ex husband has decided to hire a brutal hitman to find her as well and to make sure all lose ends are neatly tied up.

Falling Glass is not a perfect novel, but it’s a great read.  The conspiracy and the climactic shoot out are both a little over the top, and the Irish equivalent of roving gypsies is idealized (we witness how small groups can support their members; we don’t witness how small groups can become incredibly oppressive).  None of these flaws are reasons to skip this novel.   McKinty’s sense of place is unerring as ever, and the pacing is addictive.  I started this Friday night, and no longer able to stay up to 4 am to finish a novel, I finished it first thing Saturday morning.  There are three great set pieces, with building tension and culminating action, and I kept turning the pages, not quite sure who might survive.  McKinty has a young adult thriller called Deviant, coming out October 1.  I can’t wait.

After reading the McKinty novel, I was in the mood for more thrillers.  Michael Connelly had a new novel out.  I have mixed feelings about Connelly as a writer.  He knows how to plot, and he can create engaging characters.  But his prose is workmanlike, at best, and he hates ambiguity.  I’m not sure you can write great crime novels without some sense of ambiguity, and Connelly is hailed as one of our current greats.  But several years ago, I really liked 90% of The Lincoln Lawyer.  The prose zipped along, and it captured the venue of the defense attorney scrambling for clients with great verve.  I could almost forgive the ending in which the bad guy turns out to be the incarnation of malevolent evil, someone who exists better in a novel meant to entertain rather than in a novel meant to last (plenty of novels that entertain do last, but those built on cultural clichés often die out within a few decades).

The fourth novel to feature Mickey Haller feels written for the present times.  Haller has found new, rewarding business defending people from predatory banks eager to foreclose.  He gets the news one day that a bank officer has been murdered, and that one of Haller’s own clients is the key suspect.  On the plus side there’s something very fishy about the case.  Has his client been set up?  On the negative, there’s very little to like about the client as a person.

Connelly hates it when critics complain that he writes too quickly, but his assembly line process is evident here.  The defendant is a fascinating character, but the fact that she’s a teacher with an attitude is barely dealt with except for a few paragraphs here and there.  We never get to know her or some of the other characters.  Haller is the only character truly fleshed out as a person.  The scenes where the prosecution takes over move along, but one gets a sense that that the pace could be quicker.  We have to wait until Haller presents his case for the novel to move at the pace one hopes for from a thriller. 

What’s worst, however, is that Connelly doesn’t like defense lawyers.  They use scummy tactics to defend scummy people. When you get to the end of a Haller novel, you feel like you’re reading about a nice guy doing the wrong thing.  You’d never know how difficult it is for poor people to get adequate defense in these days of budget cuts, nor would you know of trials where the most guilty seem to do the least time and the least guilty do the most.  Nor in Mickey Haller’s world does the fear of sending innocent people to jail seem to balance the need to properly defend guilty criminals.  Everyone in this novel who does bad stuff turns out be a bad person.  No such things as a banker who forecloses who might be a really nice guy when he’s not sending poor people to join the rank of the homeless.  In great novels, the commission of human evil is done by human beings; the great novels remind us that very often we can become those people.  In genre novels we are told something more comforting, bad people do bad things.  Connelly, as dark as he gets, is a comforting writer.  But if could cut his books down by 20%, make then truly move all the way through, I wouldn’t have time as a reader to think about what’s missing.

Some quick takes on books I’ve read in previous years but forgot to write about:

In the early 1960’s crime writer Donald Westlake wrote a non-crime novel that his agent wasn’t too thrilled to sell, so it wasn’t available until Hard Case Crime published it after Westlake’s death.  The novel starts out in a hotel bedroom.  Paul Cole, an actor is making love with his costar when her husband breaks into the room and attacks him.  He wakes in the hospital bed with no memory of his past and a short-term memory that keeps fading out on him.  You might think Jonathan Nolan’s fine film, Memento, had been influenced by this novel.   But Nolan never saw the novel.  It languished in Westlake’s attic for several decades, unread by anyone but a few close friends.  After Westlake’s death, his widow and his friend, the crime writer, Lawrence Block, brought it to Hard Case Crime, who now bring it to you.

Memory is written in the taught sentences Westlake employed early in his career.  We want to see what happens as Cole tries to resurrect his memory and reconstruct his life.  Westlake gives great thought to how it might be to lose control of your memory and how it would affect each action, from finding your way home, to returning to your old career as an actor, to maintaining old friendships.  The novel slows down a bit in the middle (we soon get the idea that the city is a meaner place than the country and that theater people can be pretty mean when insecurities take over), but Cole’s situation has great power.  Westlake is a straight-forward writer, and it would have probably come as a surprise to him to be told that Memory a great existential novel.

There was a time that I dedicated the beginning of Thanksgiving Break to reading a Stephen King novel. I read Pet Sematary my first year teaching, Salem’s Lot the next.  The year I read “The Langoliers” killed it for me.  A great opening, some interesting middle material, and absolute silliness at the end (pac man like creatures eating reality, presented in a way that robbed all suspense).  I gave another novel a try, but King was clearly no longer being edited, and he could repeat the same ideas several times over the course of ten pages.  But at the end of his most recent novel, in an afterward, he praises his editor for reminding him when to keep the story going.  Ah, King being edited.  That might be good.

So I opened Under the Dome and found the opening to be perhaps a bit too quick.  I remember how well he established small towns in his early fiction.  But once a small New England town finds itself under some dome, cut off from the rest of society and left to its own fears and limitations, the novel moves right along.  King is great at creating local people, and his popularity probably grows out of his ability to capture the attitudes and hopes and habits of every day people dealing with not so every day situations.  His bad guys are equally vivid, but unfortunately, King might never be a truly great writer because you’d never find his nice town people doing bad stuff (unless under malignant influence), and his bad people always seem to sprout from some malignancy in their hearts, a brand of visionary selfishness that grows as things get worse.  King will be a great writer when he can create a Macbeth or Lear, great good people who end up causing terrible evil.  Others will complain about the end of the novel.  I liked it.  Since King was required, due to genre, to have an explanation for the Dome, he had to come up with something.  The novel was a fine Thanksgiving read, all one thousand pages of it.

Years ago I made a big deal about Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind, a superlative work of storytelling, which my son Andy went on to read at least four times.  Finally, a kind of sequel emerged, dealing with similar issues, but set in the Barcelona of the 1920’s.  Andy read it last summer.  I fell asleep in a roadside hotel between Madrid and Barcelona, and when I woke up, Andy hadn’t slept a wink because he wanted to finish the novel.  The story concerns David Martín, a writer of penny dreadfuls.  But one day he is offered the opportunity to write something important, something that will influence lives in remarkable ways.  And the decision to take on this book comes with terrible consequences.

I hope everyone is having a great summer and finding some great books to read.

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Thursday, July 09, 2009

My Summer 2008 Reading List





[summer, 2008]

Apologies also for any typos and awkward phrasing.

I have a popularity problem. I saw Titanic the night it opened in Cleveland because I'm a James Cameron fan, but if I hadn't done that, I probably never would have seen the movie. There's something about popularity that makes me leery. I didn't see Iron Man or the fourth Indiana Jones movies when they came out, and so I probably never well. About ten years ago, Junot Diaz's collection of short stories, Drown, came out to great literary praise and fanfare, so for some reason I just had to assume that so many people had to be wrong.

About a year ago, Rodney Peppers, a local writer (if he keeps writing, you'll end up hearing him about from people more important than me), mailed me two Diaz stories and said I had to read them. I did, and I was bowed over. So the minute Diaz's first novel came out, I snapped it up. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is the great novel of modern immigration.

Oscar is the son of a woman who fled the Dominican Republic. He's overweight, socially inept, and a ravenous reader of science fiction and fantasy. He plays Dungeons and Dragons and works continuously on a large magnum opus. Oscar is so inept that he can't fit in either world, the Dominican or the white mainstream, but still he plugs ahead, seeking out love and friendship. Oscar's story is narrated by Yunior, Oscar's alter ego, a Dominican with a degree of cool; Yunior befriends Oscar to get closer to Oscar's very attractive sister....

But this is just not Oscar's story. It's also the story of his sister, of Yunior, and most importantly, Oscar's mother and the cursed star the family lives under. The curse is really that of Europe meeting the Caribbean, of the United States meeting the Dominican Republic. Better than anyone, Diaz captures the Janus face of the modern immigrants relationship with America. There's the land of potential that you find, but that there's that old history of dictators of your native land, installed or supported by your new homeland that proclaims democracy as its value. There's the land of new possibilities, but there's the tug and comforts of your own culture.

Diaz can narrate with much of the skill of Gabriel García Marquez, but the magic here isn't Márquez's magnified reality; it resides instead in Diaz's language, which combines Spanish, slang, geek phraseology, historical references, and such a sense of rhythm and precision that the voice of the novel, if you like the voice, can hold you on its own. Much like Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives, which I recommended last year, this is a novel where you can read the first five pages and know if you want to hang out for the rest.

Speaking of Bolaño, New Directions has published a translation of Bolaño's first important work of fiction, Nazi Literature in the Americas. It's a mock encyclopedia of right wing writers, a This Is Spinal Tap for literary types, with entries on everyone from Argentine poets to American sf writers, all of whom to varying degrees support the unsupportable. Some entries are short, wry. Others are long and take on the heft and weight of short stories. This is the work of fiction (you can't really call it a novel) that introduces Bolaño's great theme--art can galvanize the individual, but art is not the salvation of anything.

Let's continue the irreverent tone and move onto satire. The great modern American satirist, of course, has been Kurt Vonnegut, who started off as a science fiction writer because sf gave him the tools to talk about he world at large. When Vonnegut realized sf would lead him into a ghetto where the keepers of literature locked the gates and threw away the key, he stopped calling his work sf.

James Morrow started off as a satirist, but unlike Vonnegut, Morrow took the work of speculation seriously. Morrow no longer looked like a guy using fantasy to make a comment on today (academia accepts that). He looked like he was writing the real stuff, and it didn't matter how philosophical his work was, it looked sf enough to lock those gates.

He had to write about the second coming of Christ (as a woman) in His Only Begotten Daughter for the New York Times Book Review to open the gate and leave it ajar. The attention continued when he wrote Towing Jehovah. SF writers like to take some common place thinking to test it out. All through the twentieth century there has been talk of the death of God. What does that mean? What if--and What If? is the great sf question--God was actually dead and his body fell to earth. What would be done with it? How would people react? What would happen to religion itself? The questions took two more novels to answer (well, actually to ask more thoroughly). Two years ago, Morrow presented his masterwork, The Last Witchfinder, a novel narrated by Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica. Its story dealt with the key Renaissance conflict between superstition and the Enlightenment.

After all this heavy lifting, The Philosopher's Apprentice has the feel of a lark. Written in a rich, witty prose, this is the most Vonnegutian of Morrow's novels, satirizing every sacred cow in modern America. Seventeen-year-old Londa Sabacthani has no moral center. Young philosopher Mason Ambrose is hired by Londa's very rich mother to train her daughter's moral sense. The mother tells him that Londa suffered brain damage in an accident, but there's a darker secret (Morrow, while working on this novel, called this his Frankenstein novel). After her education, Londa is unleashed upon the world with her mother's wealth and a determination to set things right. Unfortunately, no one agrees on what's right, and soon she's doing battle with the "feel-good theocracy" of "Corporate Christi." While the novel is written in a kind of modernized and bemused Tristam Shandy/Tom Jones prose, the range of emotions and events is much broader. This novel is laugh out loud funny on one page, moving on another, and amusing throughout (if you can be amused by the sharp edge of satire).

Now, switching subjects with no good transition: You could make a study out of poets who become better known as prose writers. Thomas Hardy is the most famous. Roberto Bolaño follows in his footsteps. David Malouf is another. I hold that Malouf is the greatest living writer in Australia. Americans and Brits will tell you it's Peter Carey. Australians will tell you it's Tim Winton. A number of years ago I recommended three novels by Malouf. Start with Remembering Babylon, a short novel set in a small bush town in the nineteenth century. Enter a young man, a sailor who fell overboard and was rescued by a group of aborigines among whom he lived for a while. When he shows up in the town, no one knows who he is, if he's white or black, civilized or savage, and tensions develop when one family takes him in. Follow that with The Great World, Malouf's Tolstoyan masterpiece. It follows the arc of the lives of two men who met in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War II and ends up demarcating Australia's shift from a sleepy 19th century outpost to a modern country. And Harland's Half-Acre is Malouf's sleeper, a fine novel about an artist who decides to reside in the wilderness.

This week in paperback, you can buy Malouf's Complete Stories. Actually it's a omnibus of three short story collections, two of which have never appeared before in the U.S. I recommend that you read the three parts in the order they first appeared. The richest stories, the ones to read last, are the front of the book. Malouf's approach tends to be reflective. He finds the personal moment that mirrors the larger social milieu, whether it be about a son taking his impossible mother to see Ayer's Rock, a boy on his first hunting expedition, or writer returning to his native city where he is mugged. When I typed out some potential sentences to use in a review, I discovered how much a poet Malouf truly is; each sentence was composed of clear phrasing that was easy to remember, its rhythms quiet but clear.

The next poet comes from England. Seven years ago I listened to an NPR interview with Gerard Woodward, a poet with a degree in anthropology who earned his keep not by teaching anthropology but by filling vending machines at the University of Manchester. His first novel, August, had just come out (but there won't be an American edition until this August), and it traced the lives of the Jones family over a series of Augusts. I liked the novel enough to read the sequel, I'll Go To Bed at Noon, which was short-listed for the Booker and is one of the great novels about alcoholism. Woodward shows cause and effect, ups and downs, and this approach written in plain-seeming rhythmic sentences showed an emerging master. Now the trilogy of the Jones family concludes with A Curious Earth. If August was a wistful family portrait, and I'll Go to Bed at Noon a family tragedy, the new novel is a comedy. Even the opening, in which Aldous Jones, retired and widowed, is living on his own and drinking too much, is full of clever observation. Aldous suffers an accident that puts him in the hospital. Reflecting on his life, he decides he has to live, and his search for an actual life forms the rest of the novel. Woodward is a true anthropologist; the reader is both participant and observer. We catch the insides of Aldous's life and clearly see the lines of fate as he makes his choices. But as Aldous tries to establish relationships with several very different women, the novel takes on a tone different from the other novels, and the effect is delightful.

By the way, if you want to order a book published in Britain that doesn't look like it's coming any time soon to the States, go to Currently they don't charge any shipping.

The next poet is really a translator. All of us, I'm certain, follow the careers of certain writers. I've ended up following the career of a translator. Michael Hofmann,, the son of a noted German novelist, grew up in England and became a fine poet (get Approximately, Nowhere out of the Cleveland Public Library). With his knowledge of both German, and the poet's understanding of English, he's turned into a fine translator (judging from reviews and his ability in the target language). Years ago I recommend his translation of Death in Rome, about members of a German family in Rome just after the war, playing out their own private battlefield. This year, I read The Seventh Well by Fred Wander. Wander was born in Vienna, was captured in Vichy France, and escaped 22 detention and concentration camps during the war. He lived in East Germany, but although a novelist, didn't write about his experience in the camps until his daughter died in a mudslide near where Wander lived with his wife. The resulting novel was ignored for years because it appeared behind the Iron Curtain.

The Seventh Well a very fine novel. Written in vivid language, each chapter focuses on a character or theme. Its overarching drama is the collaborative act of survival, so it's a novel of resistance rather than a laundry list of human evil. Wander is a master of capturing human gestures, so even the most brutal action can be seen in human context, so we can plainly understand how actual people could have perpetrated such heinous acts. I now want to read more by Wander, but I fear this will be the only novel of his to be published in English.

I don't read biographies often, and I fear reading biographies of writers I like. Very often people are wiser in their books than in their lives, and I don't want to doubt that wisdom. However, sometimes a writer fascinates me, and reading a good biography turns out very often to have the same feel as reading one of their novels. Somehow their fiction was their life. I found this to be true of Ross Macdonald, the mystery writer, when I read Tom Nolan's very fine biography. This year Joyce Carol Oates made a big deal about Bernard Malamud: A Writer's Life by Philip Davis. Malamud grew up in a stressful environment--he was the son of a Jewish grocer living in an Irish Catholic neighborhood of Brooklyn. His mother was schizophrenic, and 13 year old Bernard saved her from one suicide attempt. His young brother later came down the same malady. Bernard wanted from an early age to become a writer, and Davis does a fine job of following his commitment to writing and how it places a fault line of tensions throughout his life. I skimmed the analyses of the novels, but the rest of the biography was fascinating. Davis agrees with Anthony Burgess and me, that Malamud's two masterpieces are The Assistant and Dubin's Lives. The Fixer is the novel that made Malamud famous (The Natural, a novel I've never warmed to, is the one that kept him fed), and it highlighted how different he was from, and placed him in the shadows of, the innovators, Saul Bellow and Phillip Roth.

On a much smaller scale, Stewart O'Nan's Last Night at the Lobster is a moving portrait of every day people on the day when their place of employment, a New England Red Lobster, closes down. Manny Deleon, the protagonist, is a modest, necessary hero. This is a short novel, and it has all the strengths (and a few of the weaknesses) of a well made independent film.

Let's move to the small scale of the short story. One of the best books on writing I've read is Ron Carlson Writes a Short Story which tells step by step how he wrote "The Governor's Ball." This is a "how you go about writing" book, and it recounts all the right choices you can make if you want to sit down and write a story. In fact, if you pick up Carlson's selected stories, A Kind of Flying, you'll discover that Carlson's how-to book is just another Ron Carlson short story. Carlson is an optimist, but he understands why life can look so shadowed and dark, so even in a story about a happily married couple trying to have a baby, he can portray the potential for collapse. Carlson's story are energetic and sometimes outrageous ("Bigfoot Stole My Wife.")

I gave the very handsome British edition of Claire Keegan's Walk the Blue Fields to Bill Johnson for Christmas; at the end of June you can get the book in trade paperback in the States. It's a wonderful collection. Keegan writes a pared down, highly charged prose. Imagine the emotional honesty of Alice McDermott wedded to the writing style of Raymond Carver, then set it in rural Ireland. Her stories have the quality of fable but the specificity of actual time and place.

Some more short stories. I won't go into length about Junot Diaz's Drown, but if you like Oscar Wao, you'll like these stories. Diaz is a master of using small moments, such as a family fathering, to find social fault lines. His stories are riveting.

Several years ago I recommended Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap, a young man raised in Thailand but educated in American creative writing programs, thus his stories have a Thai feel to them but a grace of prose that seems the norm of writers trained in strong graduate programs. Nam Le was born in Vietnam, raised in Australia, and also attended American creative writing programs. His collection of stories The Boat is powerful in different way. Much like David Mitchell, Nam Le is comfortable switching location and style, so we get a story about an adolescent assassin in Columbia or a high school student facing the key bully in small town Australia, and we get two stories with radically different senses of place and culture and language, both written with precise, vivid prose.

I've missed Australia since I worked there for six weeks back in 1999, and to return I read Peter Temple's The Broken Shore. Joe Cashin is a big city detective living his life out in exile, working for the small town police department where he grew up. He spends his extra hours rehabilitating an old family home and dealing with his family's issues. A prominent citizen is murdered. Word makes it to the small town police. Three aborigines were in Melbourne, pawning a watch which belonged to the victim. Three cars are sent to intercept their return, and things go horribly wrong. The nature of Australian racism is exposed for a moment and quickly covered up. For a while, I feared this would be another mystery with a dark and driven character, the kind of novel that James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly, and Ian Rankin have almost turned into a cliché--the troubled protagonist who somehow single-handedly solves everything. However, Cashin is truly an exile, both from his job and himself, and he's busy trying to put his own life together. Temple turns out to be a magnificent writer of landscape and townscape, and he uses clipped sentences to marvelous effect. The novel becomes a headlong page turner in the last third, and it's great fun, but almost a shame.

I read Temple's first novel, Bad Debts, and it features Jack Irish, a lawyer and a gambler (he bets on horses). The gambling scenes I skimmed, but the rest, about a large conspiracy, I read quite quickly with full readerly attention. I'll read more in the series this summer.

Keeping up the high end thrillers, I also read the new novel by Martin Cruz Smith. His mysteries featuring Russian police detective Arkady Renko seemed to alternate between powerful novels that transcend the genre (Gorky Park, Havana Bay, Wolves Eat Dogs) and pleasant time consumers. Stalin's Ghost falls in between these two poles. Renko investigates a case that forces him to confront Stalin's legacy in these days of mobster capitalism when Stalin begins to look like a hero again.

Elmore Leonard is known as a great American crime writer, a writer of a pared down prose style that pleases both readers and college professors. His sense of plot is too out of control for my tastes, but on a whim, I picked up one of his early novels. Leonard started off writing westerns before the genre went bust in the early 1960's. The novel I selected, Hombre, is wonderfully short, 180 pages, reminding us of those days when you could pick up a genre novel after dinner and finish it before the evening news. The novel starts off tense as a number of different people need to catch the last stage out of a dying town, and it ends in a tightly written climax.

I enjoyed Hombre so much that I picked up The Collected Western Stories of Elmore Leonard. I started a third of the way through with "3:10 to Yuma," the basis for two movies of the same title, and I enjoyed Leonard's succinct, effective story telling.

Another thriller is the historical novel, Winter in Madrid, by C.J. Sansom. It's 1940, and Harry Brett, shell-shocked from Dunkirk, is asked by the British Government to go to Spain. The Spanish Civil War is over, and Franco's ruthless dictatorship has taken over. The Brits fear that Franco will ally himself with Germany in the ongoing war, and they want to make sure Franco remains more or less neutral. Brett's job is to hook up with an old school friend who has interesting business relations with the fascist government and find out what's going on. The novel moves right along (Cindy Cookinham's husband read it quickly), and Sansom has a historian's sense of time and place. The novel is quite evocative of a war torn Madrid.

The two books that moved me most were by Manuel Rivas, a famous writer in Spain but virtually unknown in the States (both novels are published by Overlook press). Rivas' first novel is called In the Wilderness, but it's actual title translates more as Among Wild (or uncivilized) Company. In brief chapters written as prose poems with the feel of folk tales, we follow the lives of several villagers as the town they grow up in changes from a land of the 19th century to the twenty-first. Commenting on all these events are former oppressors re-incarnated as animals. It's truly a magical novel, meant to be read bit by bit, not in one headlong rush.

Manuel Rivas' second novel is a masterpiece. The Carpenter's Pencil at first seems one more novel about all the people rounded up by Franco after the Spanish Civil War, another novel about victims. But no, the viewpoint character in this novel is one of the prison's guards, Herbal, who wears behind his ear the pencil of a left wing artist he had shot. The ghost of the artist speaks to Herbal, much like a conscience, and the guard struggles between his brute nature and his artist's conscience to try to preserve the life of a doctor who is marked for death.

That's plenty for know. Several years ago I made a big deal about Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafón wonderfully involving story set in Barcelona in the late 1940's. His follow up novel, El Juego del Angel, is now out from Vintage Books, and once my ISAACS report is in, I'm picking up my electronic Spanish-English dictionary and am going to disappear. I expect the English translation will be out sometime within the next year.

Happy Summer! Happy Reading!

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

My most recent reading list





Please note: this was written Wednesday night after graduation, between the hours of 8:30 and 1:00 am and proofread at 7:15 am the same Thursday morning, so please forgive typos and strange sounding word arrangements.

For teachers who read, summer is a great time. You can stay late up until the night finishing that book that refuses to be put down. You have the energy to concentrate on those novels that demand more of you as a reader. I think of several books I've read in the past year, and they are great works that reward intensive reading.

Of course, some people like to say, all I want is a story, a good story.

And this issue of storytelling raises some great issues. Reviewers all the time talk of certain writers as being great storytellers: Grahame Greene, John Le Carré, Stephen King, Michael Connelly. But often what we really mean is that these people know how to take easy to tell tales--tales involving ghosts, cops, spies--and tell them better than anyone else. It's easy to be a great storyteller when you have the anti-ADD subject matter to start with.

But let's say you want to tell the story of a 17 year old orphan. He lives with his aunt and uncle. He wants to be a poet, but he promises his caregivers that he'll be a lawyer. He goes up to bed that night and cries. He then goes to law school, but in secret starts attending a poetry workshop.

I'm not writing about spies or monsters, though the guy who runs the poetry workshop turns out to be someone of a egotistical creature, but already the story has taken the nature of thwarted desires and secret gatherings to hold the reader's interest. What do you call someone who takes the elements of every day life and relates them in such a way that we read on, riveted to the page?

A master storyteller. And that brings us Roberto Bolaño, one of the greatest writers I've discovered in the past few years. Bolaño was born in Chile, spent his adolescence in Mexico City (skipping school, stealing books and watching movies), and returned to Chile to support the Allende revolution. He was barely there a month when the U.S. supported military coup took place. Bolaño was arrested and perhaps only survived because one of the policeman was a childhood friend. Bolaño ended up touring revolutionary Central America, and finally wound up in Spain, where he did a number of odd jobs until he married. A poet, he came to the same conclusion that Thomas Hardy did. To support a family, he had to write prose. He wrote a series of short novels and short stories (I praised Distant Star and the wonderful must-read collection Last Evenings on Earth last year). Then he made it big in 1998 with The Savage Detectives, which I read last year in Spanish, and this year in English, and which I recommend with all my heart.

It starts with the orphan I described above, who gives up the study of law to hang out with a bunch of rag tag poets in the streets of Mexico City. In 80 brief pages (well 150, in the Spanish edition) we get this wonderful recreation of that time in late adolescence when we wander city streets, discover sex, and talk about literature as if it reveals the entire world. Something will happen, and four of these characters will flee to the Sonoran Desert in search of a woman poet who disappeared after the Mexican revolution. But we won't find out what happens until the last section of the book. In between, there are a series of vignettes; some 54 or so different narrators piece together the next two decades of Latin American diaspora as we follow what happens with two of the poets that the orphan hooks up with. Some of this long middle section will seem a little slow for readers accustomed to the way plot drives everything forward in popular fiction, but almost every section has its own interest, its own way of grabbing our attention. The Savage Detectives ends up dramatizing a range of emotions and lives against a wide social background, and in Latin American fiction it's considered almost as important a book as One Hundred Years of Solitude. Read the first ten pages. If you enjoy them, you'll love this book. And you'll end up reading anything you can by Bolaño.

An interesting side note: the British reviewers prefer this big magnificent book to his short novels. The American reviewers prefer his short novels, particularly At Night in Chile.

The same disparity has happened with other of my favorite writers. The British reviewers like David Mitchell's early, dazzling, wide-canvass novels, Number9Dream and Cloud Atlas. American reviewers preferred his more traditional, coming of age novel Black Swan Green. And American reviewers didn't see much to see in John Le Carré The Mission Song while the English reviewers saw a wonderful bildungsroman. As you may predict, I'm more with the British reviewers.

Bruno Salvador is the orphan product of a love affair between a Congolese woman and a Catholic missionary. He lives in London now with his white, upper crust wife, a leading journalist, and he earns his keep as a translator in demand for his knowledge of numerous minority languages of Africa. He also has done special work for the British Secret Service. But one day he's asked to go on a special assignment. He will translate at a meeting brining together the key leaders in the Congo to meet with key western financiers. He thinks what's proposed will save the day, that the leading revolutionary will end up helping the Congo. What he discovers forces him to reconsider everything he's accepted about life and his place in the world.

The novel takes a while to build up a head of steam, and it doesn't have the moral complexity of early Le Carré. His early novels dealt with the ambiguities of the war against communism. In the name of the final good, people commit evil acts, which creates a powerful moral resonance. In his later novels, the question changed. Now that we've saved the world from communism, who'll save it from capitalism? Bruno learns what most of us know: the saints of capitalism are only saints in public; the road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but the road from hell is lined with rewards for the proper investments. The line between good and evil is less ambiguous in late Le Carré. He has gone from middle age conservative to angry old man, and this new novel shines with the earned wisdom of his anger as well as his narrative skills and his ease with language.

Sometimes I spend a lot of time struggling with how much time I want to commit to a writer. Years ago I read Richard Powers' wonderful Galatea 2.2 and thought I was going to end up a Richard Powers' fan. The next two books I chose were hard going, and I gave up. Powers the man of ideas was often at war with Powers the narrator. His new novel, The Echo Maker, seemed like a good place to start again. Powers the idea man wants to look at what makes us human as research shows us how easily we change once the chemistry of our brain changes. The notion of a central soul that's our true self has taken a beating by the discoveries of modern neurology. Some of what Powers tries to do feels second hand; if you've read Oliver Sacks, the novel doesn't seem all that cutting edge. But the story of a truck driver who, after an accident, thinks that his sister is no longer his sister, but an impostor, is an involving story, and the second half of the novel gains in resonance as Powers lectures less and dramatizes more. Read the opening pages, and you'll know if this is a novel for you.

Edward P. Jones seemed to be one of those writers that I'd have to get around to one of these days. His first novel, The Known World, was about an African-American in antebellum America who owned slaves. I was never sure if the novel was popular because of its subject matter or its treatment--plus it was long. On my way to pick up Andy at college for winter break, I listened to James Peter Francis read the first story, "In the Blink of God's Eye." It begins in 1901 Washington D.C. with a wife whose heard news that wolves roam the streets at night, and from there travels back and forth in time, creating a portrait of both the region and the couple. Edward P. Jones turns out to be the Alice Munro of African-American literature, using personal details to create a social panorama, 30 pages stories that leave you with the feeling of novels. Try the next story and "Bad Neighbors."

I have a sixth sense that often helps me find good books. I remember the way David Lodge's Nice Work stared at me from the library book shelves or how the Maude translation of War and Peace kept calling for attention when I wrote at my grandmother's over the summer. For the past year, Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses has caught my attention, but the dollar has shrunk so much that I no longer risk ordering books from England, even to satisfy my sixth sense. So now the novel is available in the states, and once again the sense has paid off.

Out Stealing Horses starts just before the millennium. A 67 year old man, who considers himself an old man now, has moved to the country to live on his own. A meeting with a neighbor causes him to think back to 1948, when he was 15 and lived with his father one summer in rural Norway by the river and the Swedish border. On the surface, the story involves a son helping his father with a scheme to fell enough wood in the area to make some much needed money, but this simple endeavor also involves a neighboring family and complex relationships that the young man doesn't understand at all. The novel, if you read a chapter a night, feels like a comfortable coming of age novel with some fine descriptions of nature, but if you sit down and read it all during a long afternoon, the various threads of the novel twine together creating a novel that steadily increases in power and interest, even though there's very little that's designed in the story to generate suspense (except for one great chapter set during the days of the Norwegian resistance during WW II). Once you're finished, reread chapter one, and that quiet, innocuous chapter, once you know everything, will break your heart.

Now I'm a Per Petterson fan, and I'm reading To Siberia, his second novel, and his first translated into English, about a brother and sister in a small Norwegian town during the Nazi occupation. Next up is In the Wake, a novel about a writer dealing with the death of loved ones in a major ferry accident. Per Petterson's great theme is about living on after fate sends you one of its telegrams, reminding you that no matter how well you live your life, you have no control over life itself. His vision is complex but never despairing. There's a richness to these lives that make them worth living, but Petterson never shies away from those things that make life so hard.

In English 7, we started a unit on narrative nonfiction this year, so Nate Burch and I had to read a bunch of books to develop a reading list.

George Plimpton is probably best remembered as a founder and life-time editor of the Paris Review. But in the 60's and 70's, he was also known for finding opportunities to play professional sports and writing about those fish out of water moments. His fist such book was Out of My League: The Classic Hilarious Account of an Amateur's Ordeal in Professional Baseball.

Plimpton suggested to the editor of Sports Illustrated that the best way to know what it was like to pitch for Major League baseball was to actually pitch and then write about it. He makes a deal to pitch before the start of an All-Star game and prepares for it with all the dedication of the average seventh grader (meaning he practiced once or twice). He steps up to the mound and faces greats of the day such as Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. The opening chapters are a bit over-written and the language becomes plainer once Plimpton starts pitching. Always amusing, some of this book is laugh-out-loud funny. If you like this, you can find Plimpton's books on training with the NFL and NHL.

I found Evan Thomas's Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign, 1941-1945 to be absolutely riveting.

The Battle of Leyte Gulf was one of the largest naval battles ever fought. Thomas follows four naval leaders, two Japanese, two American, from Pearl Harbor to this battle, which takes over a third of the book to recount. Thomas does a great job of capturing the social attitudes on both sides of the war. He creates such empathy for his characters, and he captures the confusion and mistakes that are part of fighting a war. I was going to read just a quarter of the book to see if it was appropriate for a seventh grade reading list, but I couldn’t put the book down. Night after night I opened it up to find out what happened at Leyte Gulf.

The book that moved me most this year was True Notebooks: A Writer’s Year at Juvenile Hall by Mark Salzman. A novelist and memoir writer, Saltzman was asked to teach a class of teenage criminals. He hesitated. Why should he help boys who’ve done terrible things? But he’s drawn in by their writing and their humanity. He’s a fish out of water, uncertain how to talk or work with them, so we read quickly to find out how well Salzman will handle difficult situations. The book captures a terrible moral conflict: these kids have grown up in terrible situations and they face incredible trials, but they’ve also done terrible things (most of the students Salzman taught with are in jail for murder). Some of this novel is quite funny and some of it is heartbreaking.

When we divvied up books to read, Nate Burch, my colleague, chose a bunch of the famous ones. He loved Seabiscuit, as did Mark Krieger and April, and he couldn't put it down. He was also taken in by Devil in the White City, which has inspired both David Wright and Dick Parke to try and enlarge this book's readership. Finally, at Ian Craig's suggestion, he read and liked, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex.

At this point, you can argue, quite fairly that there aren't enough books by women on this list. I wanted to read the new Alice Munro and the new Alice McDermott, but I just haven't gotten around to them. Those will be two summer time joys.

Last spring, I did read and love and forget to tell you about Miriam Toews' A Complicated Kindness. Naomi is a 16 year old Mennonite growing up in a traditional community with a disappearing family. The voice is tender and funny. Imagine Salinger with a heart.

For a year now, I've conducted a series of interviews with Abe Osheroff, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War and World War II, and a radical activist since he was 16. To supplement our conversations, I did a bunch of reading, and discovered several titles that I would like to pass on.

Abe grew up in Brownsville, a poverty stricken Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, the compost heap that not only produced Murder, Incorporated, but also produced the initial members of the Celtics, Danny Kaye, Joseph Papp, and Alfred Kazin. In the 1950's Kazin wrote an account of returning to his old neighborhood and the memories it evokes. A Walker in the City is a wonderful recounting of a youth, of a neighborhood he couldn't wait to leave, of a place he longed to return to.

There are hundreds of books about the Spanish Civil War. In 1936, three generals staged a rebellion against the democratically elected government. Immediately the rebellion was supported by Hitler and Mussolini, making the civil war the dress rehearsal for World War II. A recent synthesis on the war is the very readable The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 by Antony Beevor. Beevor is a rabid anti-communist, and this slant hinders his judgments. Because the left has romanticized the Republic, he sets out to destroy every pillar of idealism holding up that romantic theater, but he doesn't weigh in as much on the house of horrors built by the fascists. However, the historical detail is so rich I highly recommend it with this important caveat.

In 1964, Abe raised $20,000 to build a community center for an African-American community in Mississippi during freedom summer. For background, I discovered Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi by John Dittmer. It's a very readable narrative history of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, starting with the squashed efforts after World War II, and leading to the success of Freedom Summer.

I want to quickly mention Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell. Ree Dolly takes care of her two brothers and his ailing mother in the rural Ozarks. Her father has been arrested and has jumped bail. The bank will reposes the house if doesn't find her father. Ree is a great character, and the language evokes a sense of place and a vibrant culture. I didn't like the resolution to the novel--it seemed like much ado about nothing--but the road to the end is quite engaging.

Another book that captures time and place with great ease is Hisham Matar's Booker short-listed In the Country of Men. Nine year old Suileman is growing up in Libya under the reign of Moammar Gaddafi. At the beginning of the novel his best friend's father has been taken away by revolutionary forces cleaning Libyan life of traitors, and those same men are now keeping a close eye on his father. Suileman only half understands what goes on as he tries to live the life on a kid in a world with no room for play.

Finally, a plug for some local writers:

Kris Ohlson, who wrote Stalking the Divine, a mix of memoir and reportage, a look at the Poor Clares in Cleveland, has (ghost) written the memoirs of Deborah Rodriguez to produce The Kabul Beauty School. I read a few chapters in draft form, and Kris's prose is absolutely riveting; it captures Rodriquez's brashness as she copes with the poverty and cultural contradictions of post war Afghanistan.

Thrity Umrigar's third novel is now out: If Today Be Sweet. Again, I only know the book through a few chapters I read in draft form, but the looks at the complexities of a marriage between an Indian man and his American wife when the Indian mother-in-law comes to stay.