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Sunday, August 31, 2008

What I'm Reading: August 2008

This month I will write about a mystery, literary fiction, and 2 nonfiction books I read.

First, I read the second book in Ian Sansom's Bookmobile Mystery series, Mr. Dixon Disappears. As with the first book in this series, which I wrote about here, the hapless Israel Armstrong is trying to muddle through as the mobile librarian for a Northern Irish community. However, unlike the first book, as Mr. Dixon Disappears opens, Israel is finally doing well. He is installing a display of the complete history of the community's best known department store and the family that has always owned it. But, this happiness only lasts minutes, as Israel is quickly caught up in a robbery and kidnapping involving those he researched. Israel becomes a suspect, is suspended from his job, and has a mountain of woman troubles, but as usual, his new found friends come through to help him in the end.

This series is an example of the cozy at its best with snappy dialog, eccentric characters, and no violence. The addition of the librarian/book factor adds interest for many library users also. Click here for other readalikes to this series. To my past list I would also add the Jasper Fforde Nursery Rhyme Mystery series which begins with The Big Over Easy.

Now onto another international setting, this time, India in Manil Suri's The Death of Vishnu. This international best-seller was Suri's first novel and the first in a projected trilogy. This novel deals with the experiences of modern day Indians in the middle and lower classes. However, Suri also adds a contemplation on Hinduism and Islam in India. The story revolves around, literally, the death of Vishnu, a servant in an apartment building. The reader sees into Vishnu's thoughts as he looks back on his life, while following the goings on of the apartment dwellers.

I know this sounds pretty serious, and it is at times, but there is also a great deal of humor and comical situations built into this narrative. It reminded me very much of The Inhertiance of Loss by Kiran Desai. To the readalikes listed in my books discussion report for Desai's work, I would also add anything by Jhumpa Lahiri and for a similar tone but a different country try The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao which I wrote about here.

I also read two interesting nonfiction works this month. First, I listened to Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul by Karen Abbott. Mentioned as a readalike to Erik Larson's Devil in the White City on many lists, I pulled this title off of my "to-read" back list. This is the story of the most famous brothel in America (circa the turn of the 20th century), the Everleigh Club in Chicago's red light Levee district. However, amidst the sensationalism of a story about an upscale brothel and its two business savvy sister owners is another story about the evolution of Chicago as a major American city. It is the story of the sin and vice and those who made its their life's work to put an end to legal prostitution. Abbott does a great job of making all of her historical characters come alive a century later.

This novel will appeal to anyone who liked Devil in the White City, books about the underworld, and of course, Chicago history fans. There is also Murder City: The Bloody History of Chicago in the Twenties by Michael Lesy. A similar, nonfiction read with a different setting would be Satan's Circus: Murder, Vice, Police Corruption, and New York's Trial of the Century by Mike Dash. Finally, two fiction suggestions for readers who enjoyed this book would be Dreiser's Sister Carrie for a look at the time period and place and Memoirs of a Geisha for different look at upscale prostitution.

Finally, as a huge football fan (Go Giants!!), I was eagerly anticipating Stefan Fatsis' new book, A Few Second of Panic: A 5-Foot-8, 170 Pound, 43-Year-Old Sportswriter Plays in the NFL. I loved Fatsis' book about the professional Scrabble world and listen to him every week on All Things Considered; now you add football to the mix, and I am sold before opening the cover. Fatsis is a nontraditional sportswriter, which helped ease him into the Denver Broncos training camp in the summer of 2006. As a fairly serious and competitive amateur soccer player, Fatsis is athletic enough to hold his own as a kicker, but not even close to battling Jason Elam for his job. Fatsis uses his insider status to talk to players and explain what it is really like to be an NFL player. He brought his notebook and recorder everywhere and even includes the notes players took for him, while he was kicking in front of the entire team. This is a great book for anyone who likes the read the stories behind the people we see on the field.

For those interested in how the modern NFL came to be they way Fatsis describes it, check out another talented nonfiction writer, Mark Bowden's (Black Hawk Down) book, The Best Game Ever: Giants Vs. Colts, 1958, and the Birth of the Modern NFL. Of course, many will want to also read Paper Lion: Confessions of a Last-String Quarterback by George Plimpton. As Fatsis points out, Plimpton was the first sportswriter to join an NFL team for training camp, but, as Fatsis also explains, it was a completely different league then. Fatsis also includes a decent bibliography at the end of the book. For those interested in other sports books, you can see this post that I put up during the Olympics or checkout this Booklist Online spotlight on new sports books for 2008.

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