Posted by: Matt Compton | April 9, 2007

Books of 2007 (Part II)

After starting off a little bit behind schedule, two weekends worth of road trips has put me back on pace to read 80 books this year. As we begin week 14, I’m about halfway through book 21.

I suspect this current pace will continue. After being in DC for a week, I’ll be on the road each of the next two weekends. Plus, I have 5 days of vacation coming up in May.

A couple quick reviews:

  • In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar — Critically, this is one of the best received books this year, and last year, it was short listed for the Man Booker Prize. And there’s no denying that this debut novel is written with careful, meticulous restraint and packed with emotion — all of which I admire. I certainly understand what the critics like and admire about it, and I certainly tore through it when it arrived in the mail. But I did not fall in love with it the way the rest of the reading world did. The novel is set in Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya in 1979, and the narrator is a 9-year old child who is slowly coming to understand the darker complexities of the new world after the socialist coup. There’s real power in some of the scenes — when the cars of the Revolutionary Committee pull into his driveway, and his uncle charms the men into coming back to search the house later the next day (which gives them time to burn the seditious-seeming books), for instance. There’s just something about the narrator — the way that he can’t decide whether to have the mature, knowing voice of a grown man looking back on his childhood or that of a confused and sometimes cowardly adolescent — that left me detached from a story that should have had me wholly invested.
  • The Kings of New York: A Year Among the Geeks, Oddballs, and Genuises Who Make Up America’s Top High School Chess Team by Michael Weinreb– To write this story, Weinreb spent a year with Brooklyn’s Edward R. Murrow High School chess team as it pushed for another national championship (something the team has won multiple times). I bought it based mostly on two things: a blurb from Chuck Klosterman and the desire to read some good sports writing that had nothing to do with basketball (this was in the wake of the UNC meltdown against Georgetown). In a way that did nothing to mend my broken heart, the book did leave me thinking about basketball — mostly comparing this story favorably to the one written by Adrian Wojnarowski about the prep team coached by Bob Hurley at St. Anthony (one of my favorite books about sports). But in the end, the shared themes certainly didn’t count against it. The profiles of students are fascinating — the team is made up of both “recruited” Eastern European talent and homegrown inner-city prodigies; all of them make for interesting reading. Weinreb uses the team as a launch pad to look at the state of urban education, and then rightly pushes the story outside of the school to look at the wider world of competitive chess. My description might make it seem like there are a lot of balls in the air, but the writing is terrific, and that holds it all together.
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