Things to Read - What I've Been Reading Lately (Gang Leaders, Dovekeepers, 9/11, and Wonderful Short Stories)

Okay, so by lately I mean over the last few months or so. Still working my way through 1Q84, time seems to move very slowly in the winter.

Reading Ann Beattie's stories reminds me of listening to a favorite song on a radio station that's losing frequency; you know the song could end any time, so you try extra hard to appreciate every lyric. You feel as if Beattie has dropped you into the lives of really interesting people, you want to know everything about them, but you're only given a glimmer and then the story ends. After I finish one of her stories, I inevitably spend the next day or so contemplating her characters, trying to discover more. Whether you're new to Beattie or if you've read her several times, these stories won't disappoint. From the non-maternal mother to the divorced couple that always vacations together everyone has a story to tell and loss hangs on the fringes, ready to strike at any time. I especially loved the last story, which deals with the secrets between two couple friends and begs the question - how well do you really know anyone?

This book was fascinating. Truly fascinating. The author, Sudhir Venkatesh, while working on a graduate degree in sociology at University of Chicago, decided to hang out at the Robert Taylor homes and befriend gang members. Venkatesh eventually succeeds in making himself a part of the Robert Taylor community, in a role that's hard to describe as anything other than "observer". People talk to him because they want their stories told. And he listens. For years. Thus allowing Venkatesh to document a community in which everything operates through the black market, from electrical service to employment. Venkatesh presents a bleak picture of the projects - the police use their power to rob the gangs, almost all women engage in some sort of prostitution, and the gang both protects and harasses everyone in the building. If you watched the Wire (my husband calls the Wire the best TV show ever made), then you'll love this book.

Alice Hoffman's The Dovekeepers: A Novel started off incredibly well. In the book, Hoffman uses the voices of four very different female narrators (who all work as dovekeepers) to tell the story of Masada, a Judean desert community that existed in year 70 C.E. I loved Hoffman's use of magical realism to create vibrant, strong female characters, whose stories proved so gripping that for the first 100 pages or so I could barely put the book down. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way the plot became cheesy and unrealistic, which made the novel fall apart for me. Nevertheless, I liked how Hoffman used real-life events to imagine what life would have been like thousands of years ago, when people routinely died horrific deaths, women had almost no rights, and "survival" was a skill in itself.

I read Foer's first novel, Everything Is Illuminated: A Novel, a few years ago, when critics went giddy over it. I wasn't quite sure what to make of Everything Is Illuminated (I'm still not) but I appreciated the odd narration and the metaphorical writing, which were different than anything I'd come across before (I should also mention that it made me cry for days).

Then I read Foer's newest novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: A Novel, which tells of the story of a 9 year old boy who loses his father in 9/11 when the towers crash. Foer interweaves the boy's story with that of the boy's grandparents, who (miraculously) survived the WWII bombing of Dresden. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close uses many of the same tricks as Foer's first novel, but this time Foer's odd writing style seemed gimmicky and a little overdone. The book overuses the same metaphors - such as "something spaces" and "nothing spaces." Further, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close's unique array of characters - such as a woman who never leaves the top of the empire state building (doesn't she ever want a shower?), an 108 year old man scared to leave his apartment, and a grandfather who refuses to speak so he has the words yes and no tattooed to his hands - start to feel overly contrived after awhile. Grief operates as an obsession for almost all of the characters (exact maybe the barely-mentioned mom) and the book attempts to examine how different people deal with disaster, but barely any of the characters really "deal", maybe that's the novel's problem or maybe that's the novel's point, either way I became a little bored by it all.


  1. Yay! So happy to get more book recommendations from you. Ann Beattie sounds right up my alley, and Gang Leader really interesting. And I appreciate the honest reviews of the others...with s little time to read, good to know when not to bother.

  2. How do you find the time to read? Oh I long to, but it seems like there is never a spare moment. The only books I'm reading are Goodnight Moon and Little Hoot! Hannah at www.thrivingthirty.tumblr.com



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