On the Writers Read blog, which is run by the indefatigable Marshal Zeringue, the latest post features my most recent reading. It's not what you might think -- in other words, it isn't detective fiction (well, there's one such book, sort of...) and it's not full of books about the Middle East. Have a look at the historical fiction, travel writing, and investigative nonfiction recently on my nightstand (that's just a turn of phrase -- I don't have a nightstand and I don't read in bed.) Read on for the rest of my post.
Matt Beynon Rees has lived in Jerusalem since 1996. He covered the Middle East for over a decade for the Scotsman, then Newsweek, and from 2000 until 2006 as Time magazine's Jerusalem bureau chief. He published his first novel featuring Palestinian detective Omar Yussef, The Collaborator of Bethlehem, in 2007, which won the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger award. A Grave in Gaza and The Samaritan's Secret followed in 2008 and 2009. The new novel in the series, The Fourth Assassin, follows Omar to visit his son in New York's "Little Palestine" in Brooklyn.
I asked Rees what he was reading. His reply:
<strong>Wolf Hall—Hillary Mantel</strong>
Simply the best historical novel for many, many years. Mantel’s portrayal of Tudor England, through the self-made courtier Cromwell, is magnificent. It won the Booker Prize, which isn’t always such a recommendation. In many of the novels chosen for the prize, linguistic flash is chosen over characterization, leaving an emotional void for the reader. But in this case the prize committee got it right. Mantel’s characters breathe, even when they’re not central. One of the amazing things she pulls off in this book is to have a very broad range of characters who, without being central, manage to be rounded, returning here and there throughout the lengthy narrative with immediate life – they don’t need to be reintroduced; we already know who they are and how they think.
<strong>Nineteen Seventy-Four—David Peace</strong>
Peace’s “Red-Riding Quartet” (which includes other books also named after the years in which they're set) is talked about as attempting to do for the UK in the ‘Seventies and ‘Eighties what James Ellroy has done for the US in the ‘Sixties. Namely to take the history we think we know and reveal the corrupt underside of it all. He’s successful in portraying the utter decay of Britain, revealing why voters were ready for the remaking of the entire country for which they voted in 1979 with the election of Margaret Thatcher. He doesn’t quite – at least in this first volume of the series – succeed in linking the lower regions of society with those who rule. There's no equivalent of Ellroy's chats between his fictional agents and J. Edgar Hoover, for example. That connection is spelled out, rather than shown. Also his period scene-setting is a little heavier than Ellroy’s – hardly a page goes by without some archetypal song of the era playing in the background on the radio or a tv show all Brits would remember going with the sound down. The biggest success of the book is creating a “hero” who’s almost – but not quite – repulsive enough for us to half-believe that he’s the serial killer.
<strong>In the Shadow of Vesuvius—Jordan Lancaster</strong>
For lovers of Italy, and certainly for those who enjoy the madhouse that is modern Naples, this cultural history of the southern Italian city is an enjoyable way to learn that it was always that way. A Paradise inhabited by devils, or a Hell that’s home to angels, as Lancaster puts it. She deals with the complexity of Neapolitan politics – through rule by Rome, various Spanish, French and Norman dynasties, and the desperate straits into which the city was cast by Italian unification – with a light touch.
<strong>Gomorrah – Roberto Saviano</strong>
Can you tell I’ve been in Naples recently? This young Italian journalist named names in his account of the Camorra, Naples’s mafia. In return he got death threats and a life in hiding under police protection. It’s a marvelous tour of the underside of a town where only last year no one could agree on where to take the trash, so it all piled up in the streets, in mounds higher and longer than buses. When you visit Naples, as friends of mine there put it, you either hate the chaos or you love it. Either way, this book reveals just why it is that the city works – or fails to do so – as it does.