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Friday, May 2, 2008

What I'm Reading: April 2008

Another month has ended and if you were reading this blog this month you could see I read a wide range of books.

I will begin talking about Steven Millhauser's newest short story collection, Dangerous Laughter. Millhauser is a master of the macabre short story. He has won the Pulitzer Prize and is one of my absolute favorite writers. This collection would serve as a good introduction to Millhauser's work. My two favorite stories in this collection also highlight what Millhauser does best in all his work, show how human ambition can become misdirected, morphing into a grotesque situation. "In the Reign of Harad IV," tells the story of a miniaturist working for an ancient king, who strives to create replicas of the castle and its furniture so small that he ends up in madness working in the realm of the invisible. "The Tower," imagines a community who worked for generations to build a tower that could reach heaven. Millhauser loves writing short stories, and his adoration for the form shines through in this collection. It is simply fun to read.

Many authors try to capture Millhauser's mix of playfulness and serious commentary about human ambition, however, nothing is exactly the same. Two short story collections are worth mentioning, Joe Hill's 20th Century Ghosts, and Elizabeth McCracken's Here's Your Hat, What's Your Hurry both come close to capturing the mood and tone of Dangerous Laughter. For those looking for a novel with similar appeal, Kevin Brockmeier's The Brief History of the Dead in which the story alternates between heaven and an earth which is quickly being depopulated by a virus, would be a good bet.

Not too far down the macabre path, I also finally got around to listening to the outrageously popular Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay this month. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Dexter, he is a serial killer who kills serial killers. He works for the Miami Police as a blood splatter analyst. This book read like a fairly grotesque episode of Law and Order. However, Dexter himself is what makes these books stand out. He is frank with the reader, often breaking from the narration of the plot to "talk" directly to the reader. It is very engaging and works extremely well on audio.

The Dexter books (there are now 3 plus the Showtime TV series) are considered psychological suspense, a genre that is gaining in popularity. A few other suggestions similar to Lindsay's style and level of gore (which is high) would be Chelsea Cain's more traditional serial killer story Heartsick, and Jeff Povey's darkly comic spoof of the same story in The Serial Killers Club.

Now for something completely different, I read another favorite author's newest offering this month, but this time it is in the Women's Lives and Relationship's category. Jennifer Weiner returns to the character that started her career in Good in Bed, Cannie Shapiro, with Certain Girls. It is 12 years later and Cannie's prematurely born daughter, Joy, is preparing for her Bat Mitzvah and going through the traditional angst of pre-teendom. The story alternates chapters between Joy and Cannie's point of view. I could not put this book down. I thoroughly enjoyed each voice and was caught up in the story. It sounds cliche, but I really did go through a full range of emotions reading this novel; I would laugh out loud and weep, depending on the situation. The ending is much like that of Good in Bed, resolved, but open enough for Weiner to revisit the characters again sometime in the future.

I have written a readalike article on Weiner for NoveList and here, on this blog, I posted these authors to try if you like her. Another addition I would add to that list is Lolly Winston.

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