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

Posts tagged ‘Norman Lewis’

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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Recent Reading

On the road, at home, and occasionally at work, here are some of the books that I’ve read in the past month or so. All real books with stained pages and no digital versions.

 

Graham Greene – Our Man in Havana

I went on a Greene spree about 20 years ago and read five or six novels, then didn’t read anything again until last year when I belatedly finished The Quiet American. I found a copy of Our Man in Havana while browsing the street book stalls in Yangon recently. This is a very gripping tale, and probably the funniest thing I’ve ever read by Greene.

 

T. Jefferson Parker – Renegades

Parker continues his run of strong mystery novels, this one featuring the ingratiating Charlie Hood character once again. Parker’s vividly real characters, sharp dialogue, and deft plotting have elevated him to the top tier of those currently purveying the crime fiction genre.

 

John Sandford – Buried Prey

The latest in Sandford’s addictive “Prey” series of mystery novels, featuring sharp-dressed crime-stopper Lucas Davenport, is another winner. Some truly hilarious moments amidst all the violence and suspense.

 

Norman Lewis – Naples ‘44

Lewis is best known as a travel writer, but this book is more of a memoir of the time he spent in Naples, Italy as a soldier during World War II. As always, Lewis graces the pages with descriptive prose, giving the reader a real feel for the place and time. And his fondness for the kind but beleaguered Italians he meets during his time in the city comes pouring off the pages.

 

Chester Himes – The Heat’s On

This is one of the novels in Himes’s acclaimed “Harlem Cycle” featuring police detectives Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones. In addition to being a highly entertaining work of crime fiction, this novel, like others that Himes wrote in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, sheds light on racial relations and tensions in the United States. It’s akin to exploring an entirely different world, far from that of mainstream white America. Realistic dialogue and absurd scenarios make this an entertaining read. For some bizarre reason, the novels of Himes remain more popular in France than in his native US. Himes died in 1984.

 

Jo Nesbo – The Leopard

Nesbo is the hottest new writer on the mystery circuit — hailed as the “next Stieg Larsson” due to his Scandinavian roots no doubt, although Nesbo is Norwegian and Larsson was Swedish. This is the newest of five novels that Nesbo has penned so far, and I liked it a lot. Much better writing than Larsson (or, at least, better translating) and an endearingly complex character in detective Harry Hole (yes, that’s his unfortunate name). I’ve already started reading The Snowman, figuring I’ll just go in reverse order until I get to the first one in the series.

 

David W. Moore – The Superpollsters

This is a fascinating insider’s tale about the history and “business” of opinion polls, particularly those involving politics in the USA. It’s a bit dated, having been written and published in the mid-1990s, but it’s still an important book and offers an illuminating look at polling and the mistakes that are often made by these “experts”. After Thailand’s recent polling debacle — in which all of the major opinion polls made huge miscalculations in their projections — this is a must read for anyone who has doubts and reservations about the accuracy and ramifications of polling.

 

Bill Pronzini – Boobytrap

Pronzini is one of America’s better, yet more unheralded mystery novelists. This novel, published in the late 1990s, is one in his “Nameless Detective” series set in San Francisco. Absolutely stellar stuff; sharp dialogue, memorable characters, and lots of tension.

 

Joseph Hansen – Early Graves

Hansen wrote many mystery novels featuring the Dave Brandstetter character, a whiskey-drinking insurance investigator who is also gay. Inevitably, Brandstetter ends up solving crimes that the police cannot. Early Graves is one of the better books in the series. A few troubled, if not screwed-up characters, along with Brandstetter’s sexuality and a turbulent relationship make for an absorbing novel.

 

Ed McBain – Lullaby

I can’t get enough of McBain’s wonderful 87th Precinct “police procedural” novels, and this ranks as one of the best of the bunch. And it’s certainly one of the longest in that series. Between the frenzied action, and colorful characters at the precinct, McBain shows that he is also a skilled writer who can move the reader.

 

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