Thursday, March 30, 2006

30. "Watership Down" ~ Richard Adams

Hazel, Bigwig, and Fiver, rabbits of soon-to-be razed warren, escape and venture off to find safety and security in the downs of Watership.

Adams writes this fantasy novel with such intelligence, using quotations from everything between Shakespeare and Thomas Hardy to mythological gods and goddesses, letting the readers know that this is no mere tale of critters. It's a story of hope, survival, and brotherhood.

I winced at that. How to define a book without using cliches? "The timeless classic novel of exile, courage, and survival."

But this is no mere imitation of life. This is a book that sticks to the ribs like grandma's oatmeal. I find myself looking for rabbits and am sure I'll be more forgiving when they invade my garden this summer.

4.85 out of 5.0 Flying Rabbits.

29. "The Girl in the Flammable Skirt" ~ Aimee Bender

Aimee Bender's 1998 debut of short stories shook up the literary world. Who can write about mermaids and imps, hunchbacks and ogres? Obviously, she can, and she does it with such a meticulous account of detail and perfectly honed dialogue that I still laugh out loud (three readings later).

She breaks the book into three separate parts, which I like to call Sex, Death, and Myth. The sections do not follow this exactly, but it does apply as overall themes. In "Fell This Girl," the narrator wants to fuck a girl's belly button, but it isn't until a page later that we recognize that the narrator is a woman. This story, along with "Quiet Please" and others, can be interpreted as statements on women's social status today. Or, they can simply be enjoyed.

My favorite stories involve mythology, like "Marzipan," where the father's father dies, leaving a physical hole in his stomach. This outward stigmata of inner demons is beautifully written. Whether finned, hunchbacked, or fiery-handed, the characters show their scars.

4.0 out of 5.0 Black Magics.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Welcome to those readers from Emerging Writers Network. Your comments are appreciated.

This reminded me that I needed to continue my mission. So, 150 books it is, 2006. Suck on that, year of the ringworm.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

28. "Beasts of No Nation" ~ Uzodinma Iweala

Agu, a sensitive young boy, is recruited (by force) into a guerrilla army to fight in the civil war in western Africa. Shoved through a myriad of soul-leeching experiences, Agu tries to balance this new skill of murder with his memories of life before the war.

This should be a powerful book with wrenching affects on the reader. It didn't work for me.

I appreciate the broken African-English and the way it's used to show the innocence of Agu and describe the surroundings. The returning imagery of water - oasis in a dead area - was also well written. But the story was predictable, woe-is-the-character blather. I knew what I would find on the next page, whether it was rape, murder, whores, saviors... it has been written before. The writing alone was not enough to save the monotony of the tale.

2.0 out of 5.0 Yellow Fevers.

27. "Of Mice and Men" ~ John Steinbeck

Dear Mr. Steinbeck:

When people ask, "If you could meet anyone, who would you want to meet?" and nearly everyone replies, "Jesus," I will think of you.

I saved Of Mice and Men for years, plowing through Cannery Row and East of Eden. Though my favorite novel of all time is To Kill a Mockingbird, East of Eden runs a close second. However, I waited to finish reading your better-known books because I didn't know if I was good enough, if I could understand your symbolism and literary references. I heard my high school English teacher: "YOU are NOT honors English material."

In all of your novels you show both the simplicity and intricacy of men. Their wants, their dreams, their relationships. You show the demonic and angelic views of women. You tease the reader with upside-down versions of "chinks" and "niggers," unheard of in your time.

Thank you for making this minor obsession worth it to the last book.



Monday, March 20, 2006

26. "The Five Gates of Hell" ~ Rupert Thomson

Moon Beach is where people go to be buried, whether in tall mausoleum-type buildings or deep under fathoms of water in ocean cemeteries.

The Five Gates of Hell is broken up into five sections, leading the reader to the common literary understanding that each section would logically relate to a gate of hell. Dante references abound. Drug use is rampant. This is the underworld of the death business, the only business that will never run out of clients.

Written in short story format, each chapter could stand on its own. The description and details are exquisite. The characters linger in the disturbing nooks of the brain. But it felt forced, in the way that a friend who only cooks mac and cheese suddenly wants you to try his petit fours. And like them.

3.75 out of 5.0 Red Deaths.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

25. "Self-Made Man" ~ Nora Vincent

Nora Vincent first observed the gender inequities when walking down her street in Hell's Kitchen while dressed in drag. The cat-calls, the come-ons - all disappeared. Men on their stoops looked away from her stares.

This set the seed in her mind. What would it be like to be in full-on costume, including stubble (a fascinating process), and "infiltrating" men-only events?

Whether she is bowling with a league, praying in a monastery, or flapping dollar bills at a "titty bar," Vincent's perception of the events are thought-provoking, even more so when she follows up with her own self-derogatory reflections and insinuations.

Though not smooth with beautiful prose, like other non-fiction, this book makes up for it with the fascination factor.

4.4 out of 5.0 Titty Twisters.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

24. "A Long Long Way" ~ Sebastian Barry

Willie enlists for combat with the 16th battalion because he is not tall enough to be a police officer, like his father, wanting respect. He hopes his love will wait for him to arrive home as a hero.

You see where this is going, right?

Of course you do. But Barry writes with such meaningful, beautiful prose that it is worth every page. Just as many of us were shocked by the images in Apocalypse Now or Platoon, the descriptions in this slender novel are haunting. Walking through the bodies of your fallen mates in order to fight Germans whose blood is as red as your own? These are the cobwebs in the corners of nightmares.

Historically, the novel sweats perfect details. Barry did his research. Irish fighting for their "king" creates even more tension.

I've sat on a panel discussion regarding dialogue. I've found my new Bible. I fell in love with Christy and his rages about the "fucking war," which could be interpreted as the quality of food or the weather, depending upon his mood, but is only told via dialogue.

Lucky stretch of excellent books...

4.9 out of 5.0 Captain's Specials.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

23. "The Last American Man" ~ Elizabeth Gilbert

"By the time Eustace Conway was seven years old, he could throw a knife accurately enough to nail a chipmunk to a tree. By the time he was ten, he could hit a running squirrel at fifty feeth with a bow and arrow. When he turned twelve, he went out into the woods, alone and empty-handed, built himself a shelter, and survived off the land for a week."

And so begins the love-infatuation biography of Eustace Conway, extreme ecological activist and romanticized cowboy. He owns hundreds of acres of land and tries to teach others how to live the "easier" life, a more conscious life. He preaches spirituality with nature and once painted himself with a buck's blood after a fight to the death.

But he's also hard to please. It's his way or the highway. Gilbert does an incredible job intertwining the bits of his past with his public and private personas. On one page, you will want to marry him, take care of him. On another, you will call him the worst bastard on earth.

Personable style of writing, as if she were hovering over my shoulder, whispering this wonderful story into my ear.

4.9 out of 5.0 Fuzzy Butts.