October Book Report

November 12th, 2008

My dog ate my homework.  I actually said that in fourth grade and was amazed when the teacher seemed to have heard it before.  Maybe it would have rung more true if we’d owned a goat.

So I’m late, but here’s my reading for October (and I’m still dispensing with the stars):

FLIGHT OF THE HORNBILL, Eric Stone: Set in Indonesia, this action thriller captures the steamy, muzzy, shadow-puppet atmosphere of that extremely peculiar nation better than anything I’ve read since THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY, which is, by the way, a great book. Stone, a former journalist based in Hong Kong has spent a lot of time in Indonesia, and it shows.  He brings a reporter’s eye and a novelist’s descriptive skills to the telling of his story.  Eric’s protagonist, Ray Sharp, is a one-time journalist who now works for a due-diligence firm — in other words, they check out companies on behalf of potential investors — and he’s been sent to Indonesia to look into a big outfit on whose land gold has just been discovered.  Or has it?  A great cast of villains give Ray a run for his life, and the book also contains one of the chases over water that Eric writes better than anyone I know of.  A really compulsive read, and it stays with you.

THE WAR WITHIN, Bob Woodward: Four hundred and forty pages about George W. Bush may be 439 more than you’re willing to read at this point, but this is a riveting look at the infighting among the White House, the Chiefs of Staff, the Senate and House, and the generals on the field in Iraq.  How Woodward gets this stuff is beyond me.  (Many people say it’s because he’s a little soft on the big shots, knowing that he’ll need access to the next group in order to continue turning out these fly-on-the-wall histories.)  Woodward tells a terrifying story about a group of (mostly) very intelligent people who are thunderstruck to find themselves trying to devise strategies for an unwinnable war.  It was clear within weeks of our “liberation” of Iraq that the country was a volatile mix of religious and tribal groups who wanted nothing more in the world than to kill each other, and that only the terror Saddam inspired had kept them from doing precisely that.  And along comes the U.S. to depose Saddam, set up a pathetic, creaky little government that cowers in the Green Zone and issues meaningless directives while secretly supporting some of the most murderous Shia militias as they relentlessly mow down Sunnis.  (The Sunnis, or course, are enthusiastically reciprocating.)  At the core of the book is a heart-breaking question, considering that our young men and women are dying in this futile exercise.  The question is: How do you define “victory” in an unwinnable war?  What it seems to come down to is to lower the number of innocent bystanders killed in the street every day and to gradually hand the “peacekeeping” efforts over to a government whose leaders, as Condoleeza Rice actually tells them at one point, will be “hanging from lamp posts” after the US lifts its protection.  And, of course, at the heart of the mess is the worst presidential decision of the young century, an invasion undertaken in profound ignorance and with no exit strategy, and a president who refuses any counsel that doesn’t echo what “his gut” tells him.  If Bush had the necessary stature, this would almost amount to a Greek tragic flaw: to be both instinctive and dumb.  And good luck to Obama, getting us out of there without making it obvious to the bereaved families that their kids died for nothing.

THUNDERSTRUCK, Eric Larson:  The infamous British murderer, Dr. Crippen, was — who knew? — a painfully henpecked husband whose wife felt the world had conspired to prevent her attaining stardom on the stage and who made his life a living hell.  Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of wireless transmission, was the chilliest Italian ever (okay, he was half British), a man enslaved by an idea, whose lack of social skills eventually estranged practically everyone in his life.  How these two singular lives overlap is the subject of this absolutely cracking piece of nonfiction by Eric Larson, who worked somewhat similar magic with his earlier book THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY.   If ever a man was driven to murder, it was Crippen.  If ever a man was driven to success, it was Marconi.  Larson tracks his protagonists across a sixteen-year-period during which time we’re also treated to a survey of much of British science and technology at a particularly exciting time.  I defy anyone to put down the last part of the book – the world following in breathless wonder as the ship on which Crippen is fleeing to America nears its destination, with Crippen unaware that the ship’s captain has been using Marconi’s new wireless telegraph to send the story to newspaper editors on both sides of the Atlantic.  Solid reporting and much-better-than-solid writing.

THE TIN ROOF BLOWDOWN, James Lee Burke:  If Burke had written only this book, he’d be assured of a permanent place in the Crime Writers’ Hall of Fame.  In fact, of course, he’s written lots of wonderful books, but this is the one he was born to write, and the one no one else in the world could have written.  All I’m going to tell you about the story is that this is Burke’s Hurricane Katrina novel, and it features Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcell, both in way over their heads, both figuratively and literally.  It also features one of the most terrifying bad guys I’ve read in years and a teenage killer and rapist who becomes consumed with remorse and determined to achieve some kind of redemption.  Burke gets inside this last character in a way that no other writer I know could match.  And then there’s Katrina itself, everyday heroism all over the place, spectacular inefficiency on the part of those in charge, and a missing junkie priest who seems to have taken absolution with him when he disappeared.  This is a miraculous novel.

SHOOTING THE ACTOR, Simon Callow:  Callow is a British actor of much talent (he created the role of Mozart in the first production of “Amadeus”) and a graceful and insightful writer whose other works include the only great biography ever written of Orson Welles.  In 1987, with only a few films to his credit (“A Room With a View” was one of them), Callow was cast by Czechoslovakian director Dusa Makavejev to make a film in Zagreb, Split, and other garden spots.  Despite their initial fondness for one another, Callow and Makavejev slowly became estranged: Callow wanted to know who his character was, and Makavejev wanted Callow to surprise him.  Their approaches — the actor trained and classical, the director manic and improvisational — were completely incompatible.  The shoot degenerated into an endless nightmare.  Callow had been asked to make notes about the filming process for a possible book, and when the production finally closed down, he retreated to London and reviewed them.  What he found were hours of drunken and furious dictation into his portable tape recorder, the outpourings of a slighted actor who’s drunk his body weight in strong liquor.  Callow reviewed the material with some horror and then did the thing that sets him apart from 99% of the actors (or memoirists in general) in the world:  He called Makavejev and asked whether he’d like to read the manuscript and insert interpolations from his own perspective.  The result is illuminating about film, filming, and creativity in general, absolutely hilarious at times, and fascinating from start to finish.  A must for anyone interested in movies or the creative process.

NOBLE LIES, Charles Benoit:  I normally avoid reading thrillers set in Thailand (I’ve never read a word of John Burdett) because I don’t want to learn that someone writes them infinitely better than I do,  Someone probably does, but I don’t want to know about it; these things are hard enough to write as it is.  But I loved Benoit’s first novel, RELATIVE DANGER, and wrote about it enthusiastically in June, so I girded my loins and opened NOBLE LIES, which is set in post-tsunami southern Thailand.  I wanted to hate it, or at least to be able to curl a lip at it, but I can’t.  Benoit is just a total delight.  I loved it.  It was a two-sitting book, and I must have laughed out loud a couple of dozen times.  The plot is simple: Benoit’s hero, Mark Rohr, a somewhat down-and-out Desert Storm veteran and soldier of fortune, is hired by an American woman to find her brother, who was supposed to have died in the tsunami, but whom she spotted in some TV news film shot considerably afterward.  For reasons I won’t explain,the missing brother’s Thai maybe-wife and her son are employed as guides as Rohr scours the southern coast in search of the man.  Benoit combines gangsters, pirates, “ghost ships,” terrorists, broken hearts, triple- and quadruple-crosses, and lots of other spices to create a little dazzler of a thriller that never takes itself too seriously.  Charles Benoit is a bona fide talent who doesn’t write enough books — there’s only one more, OUT OF ORDER, and I’m putting off reading it in the hope that another will come out before I do.

Enough for now.  More to come, maybe, since I read a bunch more books last month.  By the way, I just counted the books on my TO-BE-READ shelf and came up with 114 of them.  Anybody else out there as much of a junkie as I am?

7 Responses to “October Book Report”

  1. Lisa Kenney Says:

    Cripes. Now I’m going to have to count the books on my TBR shelves. I’ll be I’m within 25 of your count…back later!

  2. Larissa Says:

    My stack isn’t that tall…for me it’s more of a money thing. (c: I am working on getting through my TBR’s but lately I haven’t been in the zone and I’ve had lots of other things to do…good reviews as usual. Any more with Little Elvises?

  3. Thomas Says:


    While you’re on the subject of scary things going on in the oval office, here’s a reading tip. Check out the latest issue of The New York Review of Books (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22060), which contains an article listing some of the more revealing books about Cheney and his doings. Bob Woodward’s book is one source (your review above made me think of this article). The article speaks of the cynicism that has saturated Cheney’s attempts to transfer methods from private industry (i.e. Halliburton) to what is supposed to be the public sphere. However, as it turned out, the public never was very public at all. For example, the hired mercenaries, which make up a large part of the gun wielding forces in Iraq, have been kept in the dark to a large extent. Few have asked about their war crimes. Cheney has helped to put the lid on. It appears that his role during the last eight years has been even more influential than what the more cynical among us have assumed. The modus operandi seems to have been that Cheney makes a decision and then informs an innocently smiling Bush. Perhaps it is true what they say – if Cheney dies, Bush will become president. Now that we are moving from Bush to Obama, the new president will not only have to clean up after the old president but, to a larger extent, after the old vice. The history books will surely hold Bush accountable for the recent messes (as it should) but who will hold Cheney, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, Rice, etc, responsible for masterminding, intriguing, executing, and then handing it all over to Bush for his signature, which by extension, allows the behind-the-scenes players to hide and retire in comfort? … Anyway, James Lee Burke’s book looks interesting.


  4. Dana King Says:

    Timely and welcome post. I’ll have to add FLIGHT OF THE HORNBILL to my growing TBR list. I reviewed Stone’s LIVING ROOM OF THE DEAD and liked it a lot. He’s a good writer and a gracious man, even thanked me for pointing out an event that seemed a little too convenient for the plot, as he was able to make a small adjustment for the paperback edition. Classy of him to make the change, as well as to take the comment in the spirit in which it was intended.

    Larson’s DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY is as good a true crime book as I have ever read. I’ll have to add THUNDERSTRUCK, especially in light of your description of the ending.

    Fortunately, I already have TIN ROOF BLOWDOWN on the pile; I’ll have to move it up a notch or two. I’m in the tank for Burke in a big way. I don’t think anyone writes better than he does, regardless of what they’re writing. How he can make scenes of violence or confrontation poetic without losing the menace or seeming precious never ceases to amaze me, and he’s still at the hight of his abilities.

    I understand why you haven’t read Burdett. I’ve read a couple and liked them a lot, but his approach to Thailand is generally much lighter than yours, though BANGKOK HAUNTS is darker. He’s a lot of fun to read.

  5. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Everybody.

    Please forgive me for the length of time it’s taken me to answer. I’ve been in the final stages of the edit on the new Poke, which is now called BREATHING WATER, and it’s been pretty much all-consuming.

    Thanks for all the reactions. I continue to be amazed that people actually get to the bottom of these endless posts.

    Lisa — We’re pishers so far as the TBR stack is concerned. (If you don’t know what a pisher is, ask Scott.) The moderator of the 4MurderAddicts Yahoo group has 3,046 TBRs on her shelves. I told her that I thought this was a serious problem and that she should read up on it.

    Larissa — Money does have a way of interfering with our desire to buy every single book ever printed, and that’s probably a good thing. I’m about 70% of the way through LITTLE ELVISES and loving it, but no takers yet on the first one, BAD MONEY.

    Thomas — I checked it out, and it only reinforces my conviction that Cheney is the scariest Veep in history. It’s hard not to think of him as assassination insurance. As dreadful as Bush was, Cheney’s succession is just unthinkable.

    Dana — You’ll love THUNDERSTRUCK. And I agree with you completely about Eric Stone. He’s not only a terrific writer but also a great guy. What have you read recently that you’d recommend to me?

    Bye for now — take a look at the new blog about creativity and lend me a hand with it.

  6. Dana King Says:

    I actually stole a page from you and have started doing a monthly recommended read post on my writing blog, One Bite at A Time. October was a great month for me. Highly recommended are:

    Trigger City, by Sean Chercover
    In the Dark, by Mark Billingham
    Everyone Knows This is Nowhere, by John McFetridge.

    All three are winners.

  7. Ken H. Says:

    Hey Tim,

    I guess this book was from the June list but just read Relative Danger when I couldn’t find Noble Lies. I loved the story and it reminded me a lot of my trip to Asia, sometimes with eerily similar detail. Thanks for the recommendation.

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