Friday, December 29, 2006

150 books, one year... a recap

It only seems natural to end this journey with the novel that spurred my goal into life - "To Kill a Mockingbird." Every year, I type the first chapter, just to feel what it was like to write those stirring, magnificent words. It reminds me of greatness, and how few achieve it.

I started this project as a way to lose weight. I had forgotten that until I read the archives. My weight has remained the same. My appreciation for literature, however, has multiplied.

I realize that I gave some authors a hard time. It is my instinct to delete those entries or erase names or critical passages. But I think that would be unfair, not just to me but to those who relish change. So, to Nicole Helget and James Frey, I was wrong. You can write non-fiction without making it dry or tasteless. Just cover your ass by putting "composite characters" somewhere in your introduction.

Averaging one book every 2.43 days, I've read everything from horror to history. Often I made the choice to carry a book around with me through the day. The minutes added up while waiting for kids to get out of school, sitting through long waiting room visits, and literally half-watching the water boil (it's amazing how much pasta we eat). I've read in bathrooms and public bathrooms. I've read while my children did their homework and while my students worked on their assignments.

I'll admit I've been flaky. My husband would make a comment and I'd look at him blankly, my hand permanently creased so thumb and pinkie can support a five pound tome. I didn't participate in any work-related committees, which may or may not have influenced whether I was hired (I wasn't).

But once a week, I walked into my local library to smiles and greetings. "What number?" the librarians whispered. They chose thin novellas for me when I was getting toward the end. They pumped me up when I felt like I could not possibly read another book about women who've lost their husbands.

So, I owe them thanks, every one of them who made this road smoother. Also, the countless e-mails from Haiti, Canada, Japan, China, Greece, Turkey, etc., etc. You didn't believe in me. Or, you thought I was a goddess. Either way, you motivated me to open the dusty pages of an old book instead of tuning in to Thursday Must-See TV.

I have advice for anyone who wants to try this experiment, but you'll have to take me out to hear it. I've been a shut-in for too long. My favorite watering hole sent my husband a condolence card. Not true, but I know they've missed my business.

There are two quotes that represent how I feel: "Don't join the book burners. Don't think you're going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don't be afraid to go in your library and read every book..." ~ Dwight Eisenhower. And: "Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking." ~ Albert Einstein.

I've read widely. Now I'm going to read deeply. On the list are the top 100 American books of last century (at least according to this). Hand in hand is reading the banned or challenged books. I've found in the past that they are often my favorites.

I'm also going to finish my own writing projects. My first deadline is March 20th for a novel. I aim to option my screenplay in 2007 (Brad Pitt, if you're still interested, give me a call - and, oh, I wish I were joking). Whether I share the process of writing is to be seen. It may be too dull: "Sat in front of computer again and played b-b-b-b with my lower lip for the required four hours." But, for now, I'm unemployed. Lemonade from lemons.

The blog shall remain "Books for Breakfast, Drinks for Dinner." However, I'll finally have time to try some of these cocktails.

Peaceful wishes to you in 2007,

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

149. "Absurdistan" ~ Gary Shteyngart

Misha, the obese, sweaty son of a Russian mafia lord, wants to return to New York City, home of his girlfriend and rap music. However, his father killed a man from Oklahoma, so Misha is on the permanent "no-admittance" list.

He schemes. He eats sturgeon. He schemes. He drinks Hennessey. He schemes. And he figures that he could become a Belgium citizen, perhaps making it easier for him to slip by and enter the U.S.

Absurdistan is adrift, too. The country relies on Halliburton (known by all as "Golly Burton") and American Express. Misha, as the 1,238th richest man in Russia, buys his way into politics and politician's daughter's panties.

Clearly a joke from the first lines, sometimes Shteyngart takes it a little too far. Mixing in dead bodies from the civil unrest with a throw-away joke about Starbucks is strange. Yet, so is Misha.

I thought Shteyngart was trying to be political. However, after I closed the book I realized that he just wanted to be funny. Overall, he succeeded 75 percent of the time.

3.75 out of 5.0 Russian Quaaludes.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Editor's Note: Take XVII

Before I do the year-end wrap post - wherein I claim that reading 150 books made me good enough, smart enough, and gosh darn it, people liked me - I'm posting my favorite reads of the year.

In no particular order:

"Middlesex" ~ Jeffrey Eugenides
"Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee" ~ Charles J. Shields
"The Tender Bar" ~ J.R. Moehringer
"Eat, Pray, Love" ~ Elizabeth Gilbert
"Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" ~ Jonathan Safran Foer
"Of Mice and Men" ~ John Steinbeck
"In Cold Blood" ~ Truman Capote
"White Teeth" ~ Zadie Smith
"Saving Fish From Drowning" ~ Amy Tan
"The Night Watch" ~ Sarah Waters
"Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West" ~ Gregory Maguire
"Angle of Repose" ~ Wallace Stegner
"The Book Thief" ~ Markus Zusak
"Midwives" ~ Chris Bohjalian
"The Inhabited World" ~ David Long
"St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves" ~ Karen Russell

148. "The Emperor's Children" ~ Claire Messud

Yet another overwrought ode to New York City... this time using 9/11 as the climax. For all those who have loved this book, including reviewers, is it because of the city?

I ask this question because this novel received outstanding reviews. I found the typical NYC liter-ahry scene (nepotism, pseudo-intellectuals, snobbery) tired and gray. I hoped with each new page that it would get better. It didn't.

No backstory about the book. It's simply to awful to suffer through.

.5 out of 5.0 Festering Boils.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

147. "Desperate Characters" ~ Paula Fox

Desperate characters, indeed.

Originally published in 1970, this book engages the ridiculous and mundane lives of middle-class couple, Otto and Sophie Bentwood. Aging and childless, they search for some meaning amidst the mediocrity.

Every character is familiar, whether it's the drunk on the street or the friend engulfed in her own relationship melodramas. And while each character is bankrupt with faults, it's difficult to hold back empathy.

A bit heavy on the adverbs, but that's just the composition/ creative writing teacher in me complaining.

3.0 out of 5.0 XYs.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

146. "Old Mr. Flood" ~ Joseph Mitchell

Old Mr. Flood is a composite character based on several men the author knew as "true New Yorkers." Each essay deals with Mr. Flood's battle with death; he believes that his longevity (he's 94) is due to a diet of strictly fish.

The reader follows him from the wharf to the restaurants, where Mr. Flood brings his own to be boiled or braised.

While an interesting character, the essays are repetitive and remind me of my own rambling notes when digging through the details of my own characters. I'll even ruin the end for you... he turns 95, still drinking whiskey and eating clams.

2.0 out of 5.0 Whiskey and Waters.

Monday, December 18, 2006

144. "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" ~ Dai Sijie

Two young men, victims of "re-education" under Mao, are sent to a remote village in China. Poorly educated, book hungry, they find an acquaintance who has a trunk full of novels. Each book is devoured, then served up to the little Chinese seamstress, the princess of the hills, the most beautiful girl in the area.

Part history, part love story, this novella is entertaining and informative. I had no idea that General Mao cut off education to hundreds of thousands of Chinese, sending these would-be students to act as slave labor for villagers.

I appreciated the desire to spend all night reading, then reprinting the words on the inside of a sheepskin jacket, to hold the words close.

This is the first time in a while where I didn't anticipate the end of the novel.

4.25 out of 5.0 Red Royals.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

143. "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves" ~ Karen Russell

My nomination for the best book of short stories for 2006.

Russell, at age 25, has created an astounding collection of misfits, each looking for a steady center. We have dead sisters, missing parents, oddly named children. Russell brings us from the depths of the ocean to the icy slope of a glacier with the errant touch of hope.

Every word, every sentence, is meticulous in its detail, like a Faberge egg, and equally as delicate.

I laughed, I cried, I took it out for coffee.

4.8 out of 5.0 Werewolves.

142. "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life" ~ Roald Dahl

My first reaction was surprise; I had never considered that the father of such fantastic kid fiction wrote for adults, as well.

Dahl fictionalizes some high adventures that he had after returning from the war and settling down on his farm. He and a friend named Claud end up in various kinds of trouble. Where does the truth begin? Since he published this as fiction, who cares?

Two of the stories made me gasp out loud, once in a giddy breath and the other a hiss between the teeth. Any writing that can evoke that kind of emotion is brilliant, in my opinion.

4.5 out of 5.0 Old Country Martinis.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Editor's Note: Take XVI

1. Who puts Norman Mailer or John Updike on a to-read list when trying to finish nine more books before the end of the year? Ahem, not me. At least, not anymore.

2. As of today, I'm officially unemployed, so don't send me any more e-mails full of admiration. I can read a lot now because I have the time.

3. As of today, I'm officially unemployed, so if you know of a job digging ditches, please e-mail me.

4. I read a third of Paul Auster's book before I threw it across the room. The first lesson in writing is to make the mundane interesting. A step by step interpretation of a man's day - including how many poops plopped in the toilet - is a deep, dull hell. But I won't count it as a book read, just a book thrown.

5. E-mail fun:

"My friend is the one who keeps emailing you about our bet. I just want you to know that the bet against you was her idea not mine. I hope you meet your deadline."

"Couldn't get laid?"

"YOU, THE QUEEN OF READING AND GENERAL CREATIVITY, WEREN'T AP MATERIAL? If that's true, then AP is stupid. And I should know, since I teach AP. From the self-appointed President of the Canadian wing of your fanclub."

"What's your final book?" "Read (insert title) for your last book." "Will you read my book for your last book?" "I'm sending you (insert title) so you can read it for the last book in your journey."

"Yawn. Read something good."

"How are you going to top this in 2007?"

Monday, December 11, 2006

141. "Cat's Cradle" ~ Kurt Vonnegut

A false religion, Bokonon - but "every religion is based on lies" - a new crystal labeled ice-nine, and a writer who's focused on the atomic bombing of Japan.

All the makings of a Vonnegut parody-of-the-century special.

I can't explain this book. It must be read. It's inventive, yet based in human truths. It's hilarious, yet desperately honest.

I thought I might become a Vonnegut fan. It's now official.

4.8 out of 5.0 Ice Picks.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

140. "A Thousand Acres" ~ Jane Smiley

When searching for information about this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, I read that it is a 1980s version of King Lear set in Iowa. That knowledge changed how I read the story, adding more texture than I would have noticed if I'd gone in blind.

King Lear - ahem, I mean Larry - offers to give his thousand-acre farm to his three daughters. While two fearfully submit, Ginny and Rose, his "favorite" daughter, Caroline, hesitates. This sets off Larry like a firework, who alternately snubs Caroline and spews hatred at Ginny and Rose.

Ginny begins to detach herself from feeling anything toward her family, and it's this slow yet shocking change that pushes the reader through the final third of this long novel.

"I heard this is sad," said the librarian when I picked it up. It is, but more in the way that a person's trust can be torn as easily as a few drops of water on tissue paper.

3.25 out of 5.0 King Alphonses.

Friday, December 08, 2006

139. "The Stone Diaries" ~ Carol Shields

Daisy Goodwill Flett drifts through her common life with the emotional interest of a, well, stone. The simple chapter titles ("Birth," "Marriage," "Children," etc.) lay out her life in a linear vacuum, but the strange moments interrupt the simplicity.

If I were to guess the author's "what if" process of thinking, I would question, "What if a boring, simple character can have significance to the reader?" The answer lies in the careful details and description of Shields's prose.

3.5 out of 5.0 Rocky Rocks.

138. "The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane" ~ Kate DiCamillo

This is the story of a china rabbit who gets lost, learns to love, and is found again.

DiCamillo is the author of Because of Winn Dixie and The Tales of Despereaux, both wonderful beginning chapter books for children. But this is the first of her books that I found too brutal, at least for kids under the age of ten.

I'd love to teach a young adult/children's fiction course using this book because of her use of imagery and symbolism, especially the Biblical/Jesus figure of a simple china rabbit. Marvelous work.

3.75 out of 5.0 Milks (well, I've run out of non-alcoholic drinks).

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

137. "You Are Not A Stranger Here" ~ Adam Haslett

Deceptive in it simplicity, Haslett's ability to take a scene and write it to suit the tone, setting, personalities, besides details and descriptions, seduces the reader into following his Pied Piper call through the pages.

Several short stories, underlying themes of betrayal, sexuality, connection to the world and each other.

This is the novel to teach students what you mean by "every word counts." Amazing work.

4.75 out of 5.0 Zwiters.

136. "Housekeeping" ~ Marilynne Robinson

After attempting Gilead, I dragged my feet as I chose Robinson's first novel. From the first sentence, I knew that this would be an entirely unique experience.

Ruth and Lucille are taken to their grandmother's house and placed on the porch. Their mother soothes them with graham crackers and tells them to wait. She gets stuck in some mud and, through a mouthful of strawberries, asks some local boys for help. Upon extraction, she hops into the car and flies off a cliff to her death.

And it goes on. The string of robotic family members to watch over the girls. The history of the large lake that contains the body of not only their mother, but their grandfather, too.

Perfect tone and voice. The language revved up the crazy a little to enthusiastically toward the end, but overall, a glowing achievement.

4.25 out of 5.0 Fish House Punches.

135. "Just a Geek" ~ Wil Wheaton

I clipped Wil Wheaton's photo out of Tiger Beat magazine and taped it to my closet door, along with all the photos of River Phoenix. At the end of the movie, Stand By Me, River tells Wil that he should become a writer.

River Phoenix died of a drug overdose. Wil Wheaton is trying to salvage a career after years on Star Trek by writing in his blog.

His blog has been a source of entertainment for me over several years. I expected an extension of that in this book. Instead, there is the cop-out regurgitation of past blog entries. Even putting that aside, Wheaton's distressed ego constantly takes over the writing. Wah, I only got a standing ovation at the Trekkie convention. That sort of thing.

A bit heartbreaking for the 12-year-old girl hidden away.

1.25 out of 5.0 Skeptics.

134. "Everyman" ~ Philip Roth

I don't know why it took me so many attempts to glide into the pages. Once ensconced, I didn't put the book down all day.

Roth takes the metaphorical microscope and turns it on an aging man, whose health problems barely outnumber the amount of past affairs and wives. He dies within the first page, so there is no surprise; however, his life shows slivers of clarity, like the relationship he has with his daughter.

There is no room for pity here. Boys with stomach ailments die. Acquaintences commit suicide. The narrator steeps himself in death until the skepter caught the scent.

4.0 out of 5.0 Dan the Mans.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

133. "The Funeral Party" ~ Ludmila Ulitskaya

From the book club website:

"August 1991. In a sweltering New York City apartment, a group of Russian émigrés gathers round the deathbed of an artist named Alik, a charismatic character beloved by them all, especially the women who take turns nursing him as he fades from this world. Their reminiscences of the dying man and of their lives in Russia are punctuated by debates and squabbles: Whom did Alik love most? Should he be baptized before he dies, as his alcoholic wife, Nina, desperately wishes, or be reconciled to the faith of his birth by a rabbi who happens to be on hand? And what will be the meaning for them of the Yeltsin putsch, which is happening across the world in their long-lost Moscow but also right before their eyes on CNN?"

All of this packed into 160 pages. It was overwhelming, especially all of the names. But after getting past that, it was a powerful book. Unique in the metaphor between Alik and Russian politics.

But would I read it again? Probably not. Unfortunately, I can't figure out exactly why. Is the final push to meet my goal staining my impressions? Or have I simply read so many books that I'm not very impressed with anything now? Has this experiment destroyed my love of literature?

Deep thoughts for this bitter-ice Sunday.

No grade due to my own confusion.

Friday, December 01, 2006

132. "Honky"~ Dalton Conley

Dalton Conley's childhood has all the requisite normalcies: sleepovers with friends, Little League games, bus rides to school.

Knives being held to his throat.

This memoir/non-fiction book delves into Conley's life as one of the few white people living in the tenements off Avenue D in New York City. Rather than a tell-all, cry-me-a-river diatribe, it is a book that analyzes the issues of race and class.

Questioning how and if his "whiteness" got him out of jams (setting a friend's apartment on fire, for example) is part of the appeal. Here is the story of a boy who desperately wanted to be called, "nigga." There is no way to make sociology more appealing.

4.5 out of 5.0 New York Cocktails.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

131. "Valley of the Dolls" ~ Jacqueline Susann

I remember hiding The Third Deadly Sin when I was in middle school. If memory is correct, the would-be rapist yanks a tampon out of the almost-victim.

This is the stuff that teenage girls (who wear glasses and are considered nerdy) adore. Sex, gore - yet all in an informational paperback that can be plugged into your purse, able to teach you about all the things your mama never wanted you to know. Perfect.

Valley of the Dolls was on a similar "no touch" list, though now I'm not certain why. Published in 1966, it shot up on all of the best seller lists, I assume because of the scandalous relationships of the women. As one reporter said, "It's time we knew that women liked oral sex." I'm assuming that's why my good mother shook her head when I pulled this book from the library shelf.

Reading this book now is a study in social behavior. Do women still act this way? Did they really ever behave like this? And why aren't the women the dolls? (Okay, that was my big revelation.)

Many authors owe Jacqueline Susann for paving the way to sexy, power-driven mini-dramas. It is the original trashy novel and shines brilliantly in its own place.

2.25 out of 5.0 Sex Cocktails.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Editor's Note: Take XV

One of my college acquaintances, after drinking from a raised tube - beer bong - and burping his fraternity song, blearily told the same joke over and over: "What has two thumbs and likes blowjobs? This guy!"

Through the sandpaper of my eyelids, I look at this last pile of books and think, who has two thumbs and is insane?

Eventually you will be forced to read my success or failure blog post. Right now, odds are on success. This pleases me, but also causes me to reflect on the past year. What did I gain from this experiment? What did I lose?

These answers will come soon enough. Right now I have twenty more books to read.

But near the summit, I feel these things: human kindness extends farther than borders or oceans. Strangers can become friends without ever meeting each other. Reading can become addictive, even to the extent of harm. Reading can also be the last breath that restarts your heart.

As two mentors would say, "Onward and upward" and "Godspeed, John Glenn."

Monday, November 27, 2006

130. "How to Breathe Underwater" ~ Julie Orringer

Some people just can't get enough of their teen years. Personally, I would like to dump a lot of those memories; however, they linger like a nasty garbage stench. Orringer inhaled deeply and exhaled a slender book of short stories.

Each story involves a child... a child hiding something, a child filled with shame, a child searching for love. Even the adults act like children, bossy in their requests for attention and respect.

Minor gripe: similes are overdone. If they were a steak, I'd send it back. When one sentence contains four similes, then I wonder if it's her crutch for writing. I hope not and look forward to future work.

3.8 out of 5.0 Holy Waters.

129. "Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?" ~ Lorrie Moore

I think I know why so many women love this book - it reminds us of our teenage selves when we latched on to a queen bee and flitted about. Because, as I told my oldest son recently, "Girls travel in packs and they suck."

Narrated via flashbacks to her hometown, Berie adores her alpha female friend, Sils, who is so beautiful she plays Cinderella at the local tourist trap. In fact, her love for her crosses the line of legality, though never homosexuality; however, this book wisely suggests what many men say about tightly knitted friendships: are they lesbians?

Berie begins the slow decline to boarding school, eliminating her friendship with Sils.

The beautiful essence of this story is that every woman can see herself in these pages. Moore remembers the 1970s and throws away fantastic details like knotted hemp belts, platform shoes, wet joints. There is not a single paragraph where each word has not been screened and sifted until it's properly fitting. It takes amazing talent and ambition to be able to this word by word level.

4.25 out of 5.0 Frogs.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

128. "Slaughter-House-Five" ~ Kurt Vonnegut

You have read this book, whether under the fiery gaze of your advanced prose teacher in high school or while sharing a cigarette with your roommate. You know what this book is about, you recognize its appeal, or you didn't get it. You know the author's name is linked with genius, and you agree, or you shrug, or you punch the code that says "declined to answer."
I am furious. I know that I would have read this book years ago in an advanced literature class in high school, but I was not "AP material." You've heard this refrain from me before. Or, you haven't.
You may see more Vonnegut in this last push for success. Or not.
4.5 out of 5.0 Five Star Generals.

127. "I Lock My Door Upon Myself" ~ Joyce Carol Oates

Calla slips through her early years as if on angel wings, passionate about her love for Christ, her fervor at the church organ. She is married off to a Lutheran and fights against his attempts to procreate. She disappears for hours, days, and the stories begin.

Who is Calla? There was a white woman with flaming hair hiding in the woods. There was another one holding the hand of the black water douser.

As always, Oates masterfully builds tension. Reading her work is a lesson in breaking the rules and creating new ones. Amazing writing.

4.0 out of 5.0 Gin Chillers

126. "The Zygote Chronicles" ~ Suzanne Finnamore

To the uninitiated (or the alumni), a week by week analysis of a pregnancy may seem a bit ho-hum. We are all much more fascinated by the creation aspect.
However, Finnamore's narrator is a cross between a chipper Katie Couric and a, well, navy-toned, serious Katie Couric of the Nightly News.
Sample of her monologue with her unborn child:

The question 'Who am I?' seems pertinent, althought I must say you are doing a much better job with my diet and life than I have done in the past. However, I feel you have some control issues that we may need to confront at a later time.
Breezy novel about birthin' and babies.
3.0 out of 5.0 Test Tube Babies.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

125. "Running With Scissors" ~ Augusten Burroughs

Again, we have a memoir where names have been changed, yet those portrayed are suing the author for libel. If one completely engulfs the self into the Finch family, it's easy to understand the resulting anger.

Augusten relays the story of his mother's fall into madness, his dependency on her psychiatrist's family, which eventually leads to his formal "adoption" by the doctor. While living with the Finch family, Augusten analyzes Dr. Finch's feces, "bible-dips" for quotations relating to the future, engages in sex with his adoptive brother (who is 33 to Augusten's 13), and eats dog food. And that's just the tip of it.

As I thought of how to review this, I decided to go with my gut reactions:

Ha. Ugh. Gross. Sick. Wrong. Sick and wrong. Ha. Eww. Nasty. Sick and wrong again. Ha.

It's beyond quirky. As Natalie, one of the daughters, says, "You can write this but nobody would believe it." Indeed. It's so far out that I don't think Burroughs needs to worry about a libel suit.

3.75 out of 5.0 Facials.

124. "The Keep" ~ Jennifer Egan

I've heard so much about this book that my expectations soared. "It's the best book I've read this year" or "I loved it and it's a new favorite."

From the book jacket: "Danny and Howie are bonded by a childhood prank whose devastating consequences changed both their lives." Plus, there is a convict who is writing their story. Or is it his story?

Howie is renovating an 800-year-old castle while the baroness still lives in the "keep," the section of a fortress which is the last line of defense in a battle. But his motives are unclear; he seems to want to create a hallucination for others without the LSD. The castle helps by being properly ominous and creepy.

But why the convict? It changed the tone, and to me it made the entire story seem forced. Egan's prior book is entitled, Look At Me. Perhaps this was an attempt to get that attention by taking some risks with the writing. It seems to have worked for a lot of people. It didn't for me. I found entire sections of cliches. And when the narrator reversed his spotlight, it broke up what tension was built. For example, "And I wish I knew how to sprinkle these answers around so you'd get the information without even noticing how you got it, but I don't. So I'll just stick them in when the time seems right." Momentum frozen. Also, the ending made me throw the book, which is not something I do often, but when I do it, I mean it.

1.75 out of 5.0 Old Fashioneds.

123. "Being Dead" ~ Jim Crace

The novel begins with Joseph and Celice, naked and cuddling in a protected sand dune. Their skulls are bashed in, their possessions stolen.

Crace takes the book in two directions: back, showing the history of the two zoologists as a couple, and forward, describing the gristly detail of decomposition since the bodies are not found for several days.

While difficult to read at times (I had the song, the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out stuck in my head), this parallel story structure is a lovely metaphor for relationships - of lovers, of friends, of bodies.

3.5 out of 5.0 Dead on Arrivals.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

122. "This is Not a Novel" ~ David Markson

"Timor mortis conturbat me. The fear of death distresses me.
And what is the use of a book, thought Alice, without pictures or conversations?

There is no such thing as a great movie. A Rembrandt is great. Mozart chamber music. Said Marlon Brando.

Eliot died of emphysema in conjunction with a damaged heart.
Pound died of a blocked intestine."

And so it goes.

Markson returns to the deaths of famous people, all the while throwing in the occasional anecdote or factoid. This is not a novel, in the typical sense. Is it readable? Enjoyable? That depends upon your taste.

It was an engagement in patience, for me. I prefer my stories to have characters (not just "Writer") and plots. When I want to appreciate words, I read poetry. After twenty pages, I began to squirm; after one hundred pages, I was ready to throw down in defeat.

This is not a novel. Perhaps you would appreciate it more than me.

1.0 out of 5.0 Erk and Jerk with Dews.

121. "I Am Not Myself These Days" ~ Josh Kilmer-Purcell

A memoir about an alcoholic drag queen (Aqua) and her boyfriend, "Aidan," a crack-using masochistic hooker.

I won't even use the cliche "train wreck."

Instead, I'll quote the author: "[...] I saw enough 'very special' sitcom episodes about the dangers of drugs to know there aren't a lot of happy endings."

While the descriptions of Aqua's nights out are humorous (in that sad, pathetic way of watching someone slide downhill into the realms of hell), Kilmer-Purcell seems bent on entertaining the reader rather than telling his story. He ends sections with sentences like, "this shut up my inner Episcopalian teenager," without delving more into his past life. It's frustrating. Bait and switch. Here I am, no, you can't see me.

Of course, I assume this is his motive; however, I think it's cheap and assumes an unintelligent reader.

1.5 out of 5.0 Queen of Scots.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

120. "The Year of Magical Thinking" ~ Joan Didion

Joan Didion had an awful year. First, her daughter is comatose after complications due to pneumonia. Then, her husband of nearly 40 years dies of a massive heart attack.

To survive each day, she creates her own system of denial. She manages the mornings by doing crossword puzzles; she maneuvers through the day by avoiding places that remind her of John, her husband.

Eventually, she'll have to go through the typical stages of grief. But, as she states at the end of the book, she hasn't gotten there yet. She has no resolution.

I'm a bit tired of widows and widowers after a series of books. Perhaps it is the current vogue topic or theme. However, of all the books I've read, Didion's is the best, most likely due to the non-fiction aspect. She is still trying to remember the two days before his death. Reading about her struggle is like gazing through peanut brittle: too "mudgy," as her daughter says. But I can't imagine writing about it at all.

I felt pretty cool when I figured out that the slightly different letters on the cover spelled out "John," her husband's name. Unfortunately, that was the biggest jolt of excitement that I had over the book. It's more the timing than the writing.

3.75 out of 5.0 Black Magics.

Editor's Note: Take XIV

Welcome readers.

I'm averaging 500 hits per day now from people all over the world. I am receiving 10-20 emails each week. You all are motivating me during this last push.

Someone brought up other media; I'm in "talks" to do everything from an on-air interview to a written essay. Keep your fingers crossed for me.

Also, another reader said that I would have to do something more spectacular if I reach my goal this year. Ideas?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

119. "Talk Stories" ~ Jamaica Kincaid

Jamaica Kincaid's collection of her short essays is from The New Yorker's, "Talk of the Town" section. During 1974 to 1983, Kincaid worked at finding her writing voice. Though some of the essays are obviously experimental (using second person POV, leaving the narrator out of an interview), most are simply the cultivation of a writer's ability.

Unfortunately, I did not appreciate the essays like many others. Rather than finding myself charmed, I was bored and irritated. This often happens when I'm faced with this idea that New York is the center of all literary life... at least, "serious" writers. This implication in Talk Stories just rubbed me the wrong way.

2.0 out of 5.0 Jamaican Yo-yos.

118. "Good Grief" ~ Lolly Winston

Sophie Stanton is widowed while in her 30s. This novel follows the year after her husband's death.

Sound familiar? Indeed. I thought it would be too similar to P.S. I Love You, which I reviewed in September. Men die of cancer, women nurse them, then let them go. Widows move on with their lives. Et cetera.

This is the good book. This is the realistic book, or at least the believable book. And it is the best written book. Perfect blend of tension and release with a dash of scintillating details.

3.4 out of 5.0 White Ladies.

117. "Going After Cacciato" ~ Tim O'Brien

Spec Four Paul Berlin dreams of home while hoofing it through Vietnam rice paddies and villages. His father told him that he would see some awful things during war, but he should look for the beautiful things, too.

O'Brien continues to impress me with his descriptive details, the beautiful things amid the awfulness of the context. Psychological trauma is the theme for the Vietnam war; however, in this book it is not as easy to choose the right side.

Cacciato, one of Berlin's squad members, goes AWOL, planning on getting to Paris via a dangerous trek across Asia. The squad tracks him, sometimes to bring him back for justice, sometimes because they are all becoming mentally AWOL as well.

The Things They Carried will always be my favorite O'Brien book, but this novel runs a close second.

4.0 out of 5.0 Shit-Holes.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

116. "Naked" ~ David Sedaris

I'm biased. I can crack up when I hear his squeaky Southern drawl on National Public Radio. It really doesn't matter what he says.

In this series of short non-fiction stories, Sedaris describes his trip across the country, hitchhiking without prejudice. He meets quadripeligics, deadbeats, and Shakespeare-lovers. As always, he recreates these scenes with depth and a critical eye to humor... in this case, the deadpan silliness of being human.


4.0 out of 5.0 X.Y.Z. Cocktails.

115. "The Ditched Blonde" ~ Harold Adams

Carl Wilcox travels from town to town, offering to do odd jobs, like painting, and services as a murder investigator.

Of course. Because that's what people in small towns do. We let murders wait for four years until a passing handyman announces the culprit, motive, and means.

Adams is compared to a mystery writer's Faulkner. Spare in his prose style, I find this comparison logic-free.

As for a mystery, it is textbook perfect. But sometimes shorter isn't better. Why did Wilcox feel the need to travel light and create this enigma of a self? Why did the characters feel compelled to harm and/or murder? Plotted well, yet severely lacking in character.

1.25 out of 5.0 Gin and Sins.

Monday, November 06, 2006

114. "Sophie's Choice" ~ William Styron

Sophie, a Polish woman sent to the concentration camps during WWII, had to make a terrible choice.

The end.

If only. Instead, Styron inserts the southern charmer Stingo as the narrator of this book. Stingo is desperate to be a writer... a critically acclaimed writer. He's also desperate to get in a girl's pants (any girl, please, for the love of Mike).

Instead, Stingo is forced to deal with both southern blue-ballers and a Jewish "princess" -- all deny his wishes, leaving him frustrated.

I know the feeling. Each time I learned more about Sophie, truly the most interesting, complex character, Styron slipped away. Sometimes he allowed a trail of ellipses (...) to ensure that the reader knew he or she was being led astray.

Clocking in at over 500 pages, I can't believe I put this on my list of books to read; however, even my husband was surprised that I hadn't tackled this book before (and he's not a reader - blasphemy). After being teased through tortuous prose, I began to skim for Sophie's story. Unfortunately, I didn't figure out that I should have done this until page 300-something.

Sophie's choice? Heartbreaking. Styron's guilty-perverted narrator? A pain in the ass.

2.0 out of 5.0 SoCo Limes.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Editor's Note: Take XIII

1. If you die, your books get bumped up on my to-read list. However, I do not recommend aiming for this end in order to capture my attention.

2. I'm going to make it. And it's thanks to Anissa (I hope I got the spelling right) at my local library, where she grabbed slender volumes from the shelves and set them aside for me. It's thanks to those of you who have sent your recommended lists and advice. It's thanks to some really great germs that knocked me out for a couple days, so I had time to catch up.

3. Mail bag goodies:

"You may remember that I was rooting against you; now I've turned the tables double or nothing against my friend that you WILL finish your goal. I'm broke, so do it for me in Detroit, kay?"

"We are no longer sending you advanced copies based on the subsequent reviews." My note: Ha! I can't be bought! Or, I can, but you forgot to mail the books with vodka, silly rabbits.

"I would like to be talking to you about your quest. If it is not minding to you, could you tell me if you have heard voices to be talking to you and saying you must read so very many books?"

"Why isn't there more publicity? You need to contact NPR or NYT." My note: Ha! Publicity for what? To feed my insanity? To explain the method to my madness? Or, as someone else wrote:

"One person can make a difference. As soon as I started following your blog I realized that I was allowing my brain to rot in a cube at work and a rectangle at home. I'm going to join you for the last quarter of your challenge and try to read 25 books. Thanks for the inspiration."

Read books... it's what's for breakfast.

113. "Harmony of the World" ~ Charles Baxter

As I've said before, I like a side of quirk with my book-breakfast. There is no shortage of it in Baxter's Harmony of the World, a short story collection that reels from the passive loser to the maximum hysteric.

I have difficulty in writing reviews of short story collections. I think this is partly because I pick favorites, and then wonder if I can rate a book based on a select few.

However, in this case, I liked every one of the stories. The overall feeling of this novel - to me, at least - was one where we are all one click above hopelessness. Each character seems on the verge of something, whether it's failure or forgiveness.

Aren't we all?

3.75 out of 5.0 Red Eyes.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

112. "Flush" ~ Carl Hiaasen

Preface: I adore Carl Hiaasen. His writing is hysterical, his looks are rugged, his books are top-notch cupcake pleasures. Not many people could get away with creating a song to go with his or her novel. Oh, but he did.

But recently he has zigzagged away from writing novels about strippers, killers, and ex-governors to writing quirky mysteries with a heavy save-the-environment message for kids. And he succeeded with Hoot.

Not so much with Flush.

Noah, the teen hero, is out to gather evidence to support his father's accusations against a floating casino. His father believes the owner releases the sewage into the sea. His father is correct, but rather than figure out how to report this to nonbiased authorities, he chooses to just sink the boat. In jail, he needs Noah's help.

Unlike Hiaasen's other novels, there is a strange mood of normalcy. Sure, the dad is a bit passionate about the environment. But is anyone attacked by a frozen dead iguana? Or stabbed with a stuffed swordfish? Depressingly, no, which is why I read his books... I adore the quirk factor.

2.0 out of 5.0 Monkey Businesses.

Monday, October 30, 2006

111. "The Book Thief" ~ Markus Zusak

Someone mentioned that this was the best book of 2006. I would only hasten to add, one of the best books.

Death speaks and has a sense of humor in WWII Germany. Although his workload has significantly increased, he takes the time to study Liesel, a young girl who is adopted by a wonderful-crazy family where the mother calls everyone a filthy pig in both harsh and loving tones.

Liesel goes to Hitler's Youth meetings, plays soccer in the street, and steals books. Her desire for words is, like mine, insatiable.

Once her family takes in a young Jew and hides him in the basement, Liesel begins to see the world in grayer images. Words are powerful, yet insignificant in the face of war.

Beautifully written with astounding descriptions, this is one of the year's best. Young adult novel? Pshaw. Amazing novel.

4.85 out of 5.0 Tequila Shots, German-style.

110. "The Haunting of Hill House" ~ Shirley Jackson

"Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone."

Buah-ha-ha... until Dr. Montague and a rag-tag band of cohorts rent the house to measure its paranormal phenomona. Eleanor, Theodora, and Luke are charmed by the strange house, as well as terrified by the hauntings brought on by nightfall.

Published in 1959, it is the predecessor to many haunted house books. While nothing is too frightening (due to the flowery language), it reminded me of the quiet horror of And Then There Were None (also called Ten Little Indians) by Agatha Christie.

3.75 out of 5.0 Ghostbusters.

109. "The Pleasure of My Company" ~ Steve Martin

I've always adored Steve Martin. The raunchy jokes in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid made me blush as my father laughed. Plus, my dad resembles him. And I adore my dad.

But I worried when Steve Martin made the "switch" to writing novellas. I refused to read Shopgirl. I actually saw the movie instead, breaking one of my most serious self-rules.

Self-rules are the center of this quirky, crazy book. Daniel Pecan Cambridge is the poster child for OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). He can't cross the street because of curbs and he can't be in his apartment unless all of the bulb wattage equals exactly 155. Add in a narcissistic personality and mix well for laughs.

He's just short of being completely annoying, kind of like Martin in The Jerk. The writing saves his character, even with a nice, pat, Hollywood-style ending.

3.8 out of 5.0 Sand-Martin Cocktails.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

108. "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" ~ Stephen Chbosky

This is the Catcher in the Rye for my generation. Though Holden Caufield will always hold a special place in my heart.

Charlie narrates throughout the book in a series of letters to an unidentified person. A freshman "wallflower," he is befriended by (and here comes the "Breakfast Club"-like categories) a beauty, an emo girl, a feminist, and the token gay guy. Drugs, alcohol, sex, parties ensue.

Published by MTV originally, it is obviously meant for a certain Gen X audience. The ones who memorized lyrics by The Clash or were the first to pierce their lips or eyebrows.

If not of this generation, would you appreciate this book? Probably not. The writing is decent, but not spectacular. The theme is familiar.

But I enjoyed reading it, plus it reminded me of all the music I missed.

3.25 out of 5.0 CpVos.

107. "Torch" ~ Cheryl Strayed

Teresa Rae Wood is dying of cancer. How does her partner of 12 years and her two adult children deal with it?

Simple enough premise. Complicated interpretation.

With all of the good vibes there (death, relationships, Minnesota background), I couldn't understand why I disliked this book until I was midway through it. The writer's creed - show, don't tell.

Strayed takes a good "what if," and quirky characters, but concentrates on filling in backstory rather than showing how the characters are dealing with Teresa's cancer and death. Each character is given this chance to participate, but each falls to the same fate by the puppetmaster... too much history and not enough imagery, dialogue, and ultimately, resolution.

2.0 out of 5.0 Prairie Fires.

106. "A Year By the Sea" ~ Joan Anderson

I remember playing with my youngest son, trying to get him to stop screaming during that pre-dinner witching hour. This woman was on Oprah, and as a stay at home mother it was my duty to watch Oprah in order to participate in park or playtime chat.

What amazed me was this woman basically ran away from the life she was fortunate enough to be living. She ran away from her husband, her successful writing gigs, and her adult sons.

And I remember thinking, "Damn." Jealousy out-yelled my son.

All women feel this way to a certain degree. Perhaps all men do, too. At the time, I put Joan Anderson on a pedastal based on her five minute sound byte. After reading the novel, I feel more manipulated.

Yes, she did turn away from everything. However, she retreated to a seaside cottage where her husband continued to pay rent. Yes, she did have to scrounge and get a job at the fish market. Yet, she also continued to receive royalty checks.

After reading Eat, Pray, Love, I can't stay neutral in my assessment of the writing. It's simplistic and akin to reading a journal. But a journal where the author is seriously self-censoring.

Message: good. Book: poor.

1.5 out of 5.0 Cape Codders.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

105. "Charms for the Easy Life" ~ Kaye Gibbons

Sometimes I wonder if there is a method to the madness; each new book seems to be connected somehow to a book I just finished, whether it's theme or symbolism or characterization. In this case, Charlie Kate is a midwife, but also an incredible self-titled doctor. Pre-World War II, this novel follows the heart steps of Charlie Kate, her daughter, Sophia, and her granddaughter, Margaret.

After saving a lynched man from the tree's limb, Charlie Kate receives a rabbit's foot charm for an easy life. A good question for discussion is whether this is true or not.

The brilliance of this book is in the details. Charlie Kate is a hard woman, even going to the point of threatening a seasoned doctor for malpractice and exacting a wonderful revenge on her cheating husband. But there is a sweet symbiotic relationship between the three women that impressed me with its realism.

4.2 out of 5.0 Crown Cherry Sprites.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

104. "Hostage to the Devil" ~ Malachi Martin

The tagline says: "The Possession and Exorcism of Five Contemporary Americans." Nonfiction coverage of a very memorable Catholic rite, whether known via modern movies or threats by nuns in grammar school.

I should preface my review by saying that I do not believe in a lot of Catholic cawing (for example, Martin seems to imply in his introduction that homosexuality could lead to a demonic possession). Heathen-born and raised, I am not as easily swayed.

Once I put my own prejudices aside, I enjoyed the tales. Nasty, indeed. Horrific, yes. Absolutely convincing... meh.

Well described, well researched, but even when I finished it (sans fever, thank you very much), I felt like I'd been duped into reading religious propaganda. I would have rather spent the time with a Satanist I know and quiz him about the nuances of the devil and demons.

Note to ProfessorGirl - do not read because of the "gnashing of teeth." Nightmare city for you.

2.0 out of 5.0 Devil's Juices.

103. "Midwives" ~ Chris Bohjalian

Sybil Danforth made a rapid decision during a blizzard-ice storm in rural Vermont - how to save the baby whose mother, Charlotte, died during labor.

Or so Sybil believes. Yet two witnesses to the midwife's blunt surgery say that blood "spurted" from the wound. Did Sybil accidentally kill Charlotte?

Told from the point of view of Connie, Sybil's daughter (an OB-GYN, interestingly enough), we learn how one harp string can resonate long after it is plucked. And a lot about vaginas. There is even a vagina that yawns, which pleased me to no end because that is the first line in one of my short stories that was massacred during a fiction writing workshop in graduate school.

But I digress.

Each chapter begins with one of Sybil's journal entries, which are beautifully written in a powerful voice. But it's the sing-song tempo of Bohjalian's plotting and description that amazed me. Need an example of effective dialogue? Here. Need to know about creating suspense? Here.

I did not anticipate the ending. This may throw some of you off, so you will. I hope not because it was such a delight.

4.5 out of 5.0 Midori Sours.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Editor's Note: Take XII

1. I'm not going to make it. It's okay, you can be honest with me. Someone do the math; I majored in smiling and daydreaming.

2. Illness is good. I have read for six hours straight today. Mixing books while burning a 102 degree temperature leads to the desire to either visit a priest or divorce attorney. Especially when mixing Hostage to the Devil with A Year By the Sea. Fortunately, I'm at the crawling stage, so my soul and marriage are safe.

3. When blogging, one may feel the urge to find out who, exactly, is reading his or her blog. If you display neurotic tendancies, do not embed a counter into your blog. You will spend too much time wondering why someone wanted to know "google-margaret-atwood-sexual-symbolism-comparison-to-shit-stains."

4. Who the heck is reading this from the following countries: Ireland, Afghanistan, Poland, Italy, Indonesia, and Chile? Please soothe a dying (okay, suffering) girl's wishes and come forth. (Winks to those in Canada, Egypt, Japan, China, and Yugoslavia... I know *you* wonderful readers.)

5. Short books. Still need short novels. Novellas. Por favor and gracias. An extra abrazo if you send a morphine drip, as well.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

102. "The Inhabited World" ~ David Long

I waited a while to review this book. Fear held me back. Here was an author I respected and had a pseudo-semi-friendship via the luxury of e-mail. I've refrained from posting my friends' books before because of this fear of hurting their feelings or resisting my honest opinion.

I need not have worried so much.

In fact, I am more concerned that this book has not received more recognition. Yes, I'm talking to you, Pulitzer, and you, too, Man Booker. Because The Inhabited World tops my personal list for 2006 novels. It's not just because David Long was the first member of my blog's fan club or his ridiculously incredible taste in books.

Evan Molloy and Maureen Keniston are stuck in the same house in Washington. Evan, however, is dead, a "lost soul" wandering after his suicide. Maureen, while alive, mimics his purgatory by sleepwalking through her days, just barely on the cusp of figuring out how to change.

Beautifully detailed and described, Long sets scenes with the master strokes of Monet. Each sentence invokes meaning as we learn what led Evan to raise the gun to his head that fateful day. Every word is carefully chosen to glean the highest emotional response.

And it did. I wept. It is the first anniversary of a family member's suicide, which may tint my response. But I also wept at the sheer brilliance of the imagery, of Maureen's flaws, of Evan's family history.

I often want to thank an author for a special reading experience. In this case, I'm glad that I can do it personally. Well done, sir.

4.8 out of 5.0 Long Walks Off a Short Piers.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

101. "After Many a Summer Dies the Swan" ~ Aldous Huxley

I finished reading this book two weeks ago, yet I have not reviewed it. Let's play analysis, shall we?

First, I was fascinated that a corridor pass fell out of its pages. For a Mr. Jeff XXX from the office to room 211, dated 10/23/78. Why hasn't this book been read? Why hasn't it been checked out from the library? Once my astonishment passed, I began to worry (as is my nature) that the reasons were negative ones.

Next, I'm not a science fiction fan. While I have read many short stories and novels that would be classified as science fiction, I do not search for it. Seeing this book adored by the sci-fi set also set my brow with concern.

I skipped the pancakes and bacon and just bit in to this book. And I'm still digesting.

Jo Stoyte is a millionaire obsessed with defeating death. He hires Jeremy Pordage to organize crates of papers he has acquired, wherein Pordage finds the possible solution to longevity.

Intermixed are monologues on literature, religion, government, and sexuality. Huxley attempts to be both earnest and satirical in his views on spirituality and money. He succeeds.

It took a while for me to relax into the book. It is still taking me some time to recover from reading it. I question some of his statements, as well as his reasoning. There are little to no literary reviews in which I may take refuge by agreeing or disagreeing with my opinion.

But, as I often state to students and colleagues, isn't that the point of reading - to introduce new thinking in such a way that it inspires others to ask their own questions?

4.5 out of 5.0 Red Deaths.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Editor's Note: Take XI

So. Here we sit. Perhaps you're just catching up, or maybe you have been along for the whole bumpy ride. You may remember when the goal was 100 books. I know I do.

Two-thirds of the way to my goal, I have these words for my tombstone:

She came, she saw, she read... too much.

Again, thank you for the kind e-mails and notes.

100. "Frankenstein" ~ Mary Shelley

Victor Frankenstein tells the captain of an ice-logged ship the story of his obsession with life, so much so that he created one out of a corpse and electricity.

Nearly 190 years after Mary Shelley wrote this novel, it still carries the ability to awe and frighten, especially in this modern age of cloning.

Most people are familiar with the story, prominently through Gene Wilder's Young Frankenstein. Of course, I would much rather get my chills from the pages, and this is the month for such indulgence.

4.0 out of 5.0 Grateful Deads.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

99. "Echo" ~ Francesca Lia Block

The creator of Weetzie Bat has cast her luminescent web again. Echo follows a girl's zig-zagged arrival to womanhood, told through different points of view. In Block's tradition, it is filled with pill-popping, cigarette-smoking, death-defying darkness and angelic imagery. Her books are fairy tales for the jaded.

Considered "young adult" novels, I'm always surprised at her approach to sexuality. She recognizes that teens are sexual beings and writes about it honestly.

Some may find her writing style too jagged or dreamy. I find it hypnotic, as if I've been in the opium den too long.

4.0 out of 5.0 California Martinis.