musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

February 2012 Reading List

Joe Boyd – White Bicylces

The book, subtitled “Making Music in the 1960s,” also bleeds a bit into subsequent decades, a period when Boyd was working with some of the more interesting musicians on the planet as a manager, producer, and label owner. Boyd started off working with blues and folk artists in the US, until migrating to England, where he worked closely with the likes of Sandy Denny, Fairport Convention, Nick Drake and The Incredible String Band. Some marvelous stories and anecdotes help to make this an engrossing read. The only gripe I have is that, considering Boyd’s multi-decade career, the book is too short and doesn’t go into more depth on some of the fascinating artists he met. Perhaps he’s saving more stories for another volume?

Norman Lewis – A Voyage By Dhow

This is a collection of essays that the great travel writer penned from various locations over a multi-decade period. Lewis died at the age of 95 in 2003 and was travelling — and writing — until near the very end of his life. Back in the early days of his career as a journalist, Westerners seldom visited some of these destinations (Yemen, Paraguay, Soviet Union, etc.) that he covers in this book. His earlier books about Southeast Asia (A Dragon Apparent and Golden Earth) are especially fascinating for their observations of countries such as Burma and Cambodia. As always, Lewis has an astute eye for detail and the ability to see the big picture. In one particularly penetrating essay in this collection, Lewis comes across a dubious group of missionaries in Venezuela who are attempting to “convert” a primitive tribe to Christianity, and in the process wean them from their traditional way of life. Sadly, of course, such missionaries are still allowed to spew their poison around the world. We could use more writers like Lewis who question — and challenge — such destructive practices.

Loren Estleman – Roses are Dead

Estleman has written dozens of books over the years, most of them stellar examples of classic crime fiction (he also writes Westerns once in a while). His Amos Walker series is particularly good. This novel, however, is one in his Peter Macklin series about a Detroit hit man, published in 1985. I had never read any of the Macklin books before, so I was looking forward to this one. While it was good, I didn’t think it was nearly as well written as the Amos Walker books or his excellent Detroit historical crime fiction series (Whiskey River, Motown, King of the Corner, Edsel, Jitterbug, etc.). Still, this is a writer more mystery fans should read.

David Leavitt – The Indian Clerk

Leavitt is one of the writers who is so good that he leaves you in awe of his talent. I read two of his books many years ago (The Lost Language of Cranes was particularly good), so I figured it was time to get back on board. And I’m glad I did. Set in the early 1900s, during the First World War, this is very compelling story enriched by Leavitt’s elegant prose. Leavitt introduces the reader to a bunch of quirky, closeted British mathematicians who are contacted by a young man from India who turns out to be a mathematical genius. These were all real individuals in history (Bertrand Russell also pops up in this tale), but Leavitt has taken a few liberties with their lives to spice things up.

Michael Koryta – Sorrow’s Anthem

I’m on a roll with this Koryta guy, devouring any new book I can find by him. This is one in his Lincoln Perry series, featuring a young private investigator, ex-cop who reluctantly takes on an unusual case. Fans of crime fiction authors such as Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, and John Sandford should go for Koryta’s books. Everything I’ve read thus far has been quality stuff.

Lawrence Block – A Drop of the Hard Stuff

This is the long-awaited new book in Block’s long-running Matt Scudder series, featuring a recovering alcoholic. I couldn’t wait for the paperback, so I sucked it up and bought the hardcover. That’s how much I like Lawrence Block’s book. Rather than a brand new contemporary adventure in Scudder’s life, however, this one takes the reader back to a case that Scudder was working on about thirty years previously. As usual, Block’s characters are an agreeable bunch, all of whom always seem to be on the same page, both literally and figuratively. It’s almost as if they could finish one another’s sentences. Nonetheless, this is an addictive page turner that Block fans will devour. Because the story takes us back in time, we are not treated to current Scudder characters, most notably new wife Elaine, or his funky rhyming’ sidekick T.J.

Fannie Flagg – I Still Dream About You

I’ve enjoyed reading Fannie Flagg’s books for many years. Reading this latest novel, however, I was shocked at how poorly written it was. The writing was simplistic and full of so many dull clichés that it made me wince. Where were the editors? It makes me wonder who really wrote this book. Certainly not the same author who penned gems like Fried Green Tomatoes and Welcome to the World, Baby Girl. I hope this one was only a freak misstep and not the sign that Fannie Flagg has totally lost it.

Mark Kurlansky – 1968

This is an account of the many turbulent events that took place around the world in 1968. In addition to what happened in the US that year (assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, student protests, LBJ declining to run for another turn, the rise of Nixon, etc.), Kurlansky sheds the spotlight on the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, and incidents in Poland, France, and Spain. Most of this book were very good, but Kuransky’s account of the year didn’t grip me as much as I had hoped. Admittedly, I found the parts about Poland and other European countries of little interest, and would have liked more detail about the ramifications of what happened in the US during that tumultuous year.

Bill Granger – There Are No Spies

Two decades ago, Granger was hailed by no less than Ed McBain as “America’s best spy novelist.” A pity he is not better known nowadays. Perhaps such “spy” tales now seem dated, but this and other books in the Granger’s “November Man” series are all very entertaining reads. There Are No Spies is also part of “November Man” series, and it’s another cracker (as the Aussies would say). With its many double-crossing characters and nefarious espionage activity, it reminds me a bit of those great Ross Thomas novels. Really, I think Granger is that good a writer.

Miguel Syjuco – Ilustrado

This was a recemt winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize. In awarding that prize, the judges called this novel “brilliantly conceived, and stylishly executed.” Stylishly executed? That should have been a hint right there. I tried, but I couldn’t even finish this one. Syjuco show signs of being a very good writer, but the story jumps around so much — in both location and points in time, all while offering different narratives, that I lost interest . Like many of the regular Booker Prize winners, this was yet another highly-praised book that gave me a headache and puzzled the hell out of me.

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