Saturday, April 29, 2006

41. "Without Feathers" ~ Woody Allen

Woody Allen, why don't I like your movies?

The writing is incredible. It reminds me of the Mad Libs that I'm doing with my children... he comes up with these crazy out of nowhere sentences.

If a Woody Allen joke were to be analyzed, it would look like this:

Type normal beginning of a sentence, add "except for" or "but", then adjective adjective noun.

I'm not afraid of her, just the attachment she has to crochet needles and starch.


Exactly. Which makes it fun reading. The plays "Death" and "God" are especially well mastered.

While it's not roll-on-the-floor-clutching-my-sides, it gives the proper titter, the nod to "intellectuals" who understand jokes about philosophy or religion. I'm glad I got half of them.

4.25 out of 5.0 New York Cocktails.

40. "March" ~ Geraldine Brooks

Mr. March, husband to Marmee and father to Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, the forces behind Little Women, joins the Union army as chaplain and proceeds to follow a southern path to memories.

The author switches back and forth, from March's memories to March's war experiences. While we find how March met and married Marmee, we also get glimpses into the famous lives of Thoreau and Emerson. He is a cog in the wheel rolling toward a unified country, one free of slavery. In fact, he is so steadfast in his beliefs that he does not eat milk or cheese, rightfully owned by the cows.

After the battle for an island property, he realizes that he had been there before and is reunited with a slave whose downfall was March's doing in previous time. He beds her, remarkably quickly in his army stint, especially as chaplain, especially as devotee of Marmee and her passionate nature.

Later, his commander recommends that March remove himself. "A chaplain is supposed to comfort," he says, and March does nothing but aggravate his fellow humans with reproaches and unintended slights.

March is sent to a southern plantation, one that is taken over by a Northern lawyer. Here, the story begins to take shape... the experiences of teaching blacks to read and write and cipher, the fear of getting the cotton ginned before revolutionaries put it to blaze.

I had a love/hate relationship with this book. First, could it stand alone, without the tie-in to the Little Women? Perhaps it should have tried. This version of Mr. March is despicable in his cowardly actions; his only brave movements appear when he is trying to impress someone, either Marmee or the slave, Grace. It is not the hero that appears in Little Women.

Second, why doesn't he change? He goes from no wealth, seeing a slave whipped raw due to his failings, to wealth and life with Marmee and the girls, to poverty and his admission to the army. He writes Marmee lies about how he's doing, always choosing the best way to present himself, yet he does this in life, too. He never becomes honest with what has happened to him, to the other soldiers, or to those dependant upon him until the end of the book, and by then I was so annoyed with this wishy-washy pansy that I could care less. Luckily, the author chose to switch to Marmee's point of view at this stage, so I could be released from any more pandering.

An interesting, historical novel, but not, as one reviewer said, a book that "would make Louisa May Alcott proud."

2.75 out of 5.0 Blue Womans.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

39. "In Cold Blood" ~ Truman Capote

Yes, this has to do with my rule of books and movies. And I really want to see Capote.

Truman Capote writes the true tale of two men's night of terror when they killed four members of the Clutter family (I almost did the journalism thing and said "brutally murdered," but aren't all murders brutal?). From the first lines, Capote describes the small Kansas community until it's so vivid I could imagine that I've been there. This is how nonfiction should be written -- intertwined with quotations from the killers, interviews with family, backstories of even the minor "characters."

It is a folly to try to portray murderers as victims. However, Capote wrote to my disbelief, persuading me to recognize - not excuse - the despair buried in such darkness. Only a fantastic writer can achieve that.

4.8 out of 5.0 Killers.

Monday, April 24, 2006

38. "The Constant Gardener" ~ John Le Carre

If you are a mystery aficianado, you cannot survive any discussion on the art of genre writing without knowing John Le Carre's work. The Spy That Came In From the Cold literally created a new twist to the mystery -- a hero *can* die at the end of a book. Oops. Sorry about giving it away.

With this admiration for the author, I found myself perplexed when, one-third of the way through this novel, I felt restless. Set in Africa, the story is about a British diplomat for the Nairobi High Commission, Justin, and his journey through the mystery of his wife's murder.

The film received rave reviews. However, I have a personal policy. If I know that the movie is based on a book, I read the book first. Therefore, I have not seen the movie. Please, tell me that the movie is good.

I beg for this because I am astonished at my visceral response to this book. The wife, Tessa, seemed spoiled and self-indulgent, even if she were doing good deeds. Justin is a cuckolded flake. Their relationship seems more and more absurd as the book stretches on. I skimmed the last thirty pages, then threw the book into the "puke bucket" next to my bed (I've been ill). Perfect shot, I'd say.

1.0 out of 5.0 Angry Dwarves.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

37. "World's End" ~ T.C. Boyle

When confronted with a three-page cast of characters, it is easy to roll one's eyes and sigh in mock frustration. But delving into the world of T.C. Boyle always takes a monumental plunge, and I've yet to be disappointed by the fall.

In World's End, Boyle weaves the lives of settlers, hippies, landholders, renters, displaced natives, and activists - over two main time frames. As always, I wonder whether Boyle's imagination is more padded than the rest of us or if he is simply a master of research. The thick details and imagery is like the viscous mud of the Blood River, sucking the reader into this World's End.

"What's it about?" a friend asked. I coughed on my response. It's 400-plus pages of battles, fights to maintain family ties or separate from them, rumbles to prove one's sense of "right," spats to keep time from influencing progress.

The auto-biographical elements did pull me out of it, however, but for those of you not familiar with T.C. Boyle will not be bothered by that.

4.15 out of 5.0 Tall Ships.

Monday, April 17, 2006

36. "Old School" ~ Tobias Wolff

I know Tobias Wolff is a big deal in the liter-ahry world. I just didn't know why. Of course, this is due to my inept literature schooling (a.k.a. "Do What You're Good At" - a nonfiction piece that will appear on the blog soon).

In Old School, the narrator competes against his fellow students at an eastern prep school to be the best... narrator. These young men pine for the best because then they meet the best: Robert Frost, a despicable Ayn Rand, and, eventually, Ernest Hemingway.

The unnamed narrator lusts after this prize to the point of obsession. Which, after all, is what being a writer is about, isn't it? This egotistical obsession that our material is worth something. In our hero's case, it brings a mish-mash of ethical dilemmas, some surprising, while others are hopelessly typical and believable. The beauty of Wolff is his ability to create empathy with this character.

4.0 out of 5.0 Red Apples.

Axed: "The Brothers Karamazov"

Note to self: do not check this book out from the library with a stack of others. You will become distracted and driven to drink vodka whilst trying to keep the names straight. You will renew this book until your lovely librarian refuses in his kind way, "Have you seen the new cover on the Capote book?"

Try, try again.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

For the Watership Down lovers: Which rabbit are you?

I'll tell if you do.

Editor's Note: Take IV

I'm not quite one-third of the way through 2006 and I'm already concerned for my sanity.

In The Lovely Bones, Susie Salmon's version of heaven contained a bird's eye view of her family and a gazebo. My heaven would be a library, one with those suede chaise lounge chairs and chenille throws. I would look up and see row upon row of shelves disappearing into the mists. I would climb upon a ladder and it would Harry Potter-me to the exact book I want.

My heaven is books. My heaven is reading.

So, almost one-third of the way through 2006, I find myself relishing this choice. I have no fewer than seven books on my bedside table. I have more piled on my desk downstairs. I have ARC copies, a snoozing golden retriever at my side, and fantastic '80s tunes on my iPod.

But the complaints are filing in. First, the family. "We want more attention." Then, the friends. "Are you dead?"

Finally, the writing. Like Shel Silverstein's Giving Tree, "Come, Kristin. Come swing on my branches and eat apples and be happy. Come play." Slips of dialogue, the wisps of an introduction. Gone. I forget to write them down. I forget to write. And I have a deadline at the end of the month.

Lolita says to forget it, that editors never mean for them to be firm deadlines. The Brothers Karamazov say to wait until the weekend, refresh myself with a new novel, then plunge into my work. The Constant Gardener says to go outside and play with my kids, smell fresh air instead of library pages that remind me of my grandfather, all faded yellow, cigarette smoke.

34. and 35. "Dreaming the Bull," "Dreaming the Hound" ~ Manda Scott

I won't say that I was a bit peeved to find that someone had written not only one book, but is currently amidst a four-part series about Boudica (or Boudicca, or Boadicea, or however you and yours spell it). Especially since I had written the screenplay, then had Mel Gibson reject it, then decided to rewrite it as a novel. No, really, I'm not upset at all.

The first book is a marvelous rendition of the Eceni tribe and the birth and childhood of the famous warrior queen, who later burns down London and kicks Roman ass.

Scott mixes legend with Roman history, creating a new version of the uprising. Her use of "dreaming" among the chosen ones (a reference to the common use of "priests") adds a different dimension to the historical perspective.

However, she veered off-course in the following novels, perhaps following her own "dreaming" and relating the stories of several other characters rather than focusing on Boudica. The repetitive "dreams" of bulls and hares and hounds becomes aggravating. This is a warrior's tale. Show me the warriors.

A lot of this could be personal vent. I hated Masterpiece Theatre's Boudicca for the same reasons. As will many of you despise my version. Meh.

2.25 out of 5.0 Roman Riots.

33. "In the Company of the Courtesan" ~ Sarah Dunant

Before reading a fabulous review of this book, I thought it was another historical romance ("not that there's anything wrong with that"). Courtesan = sex = bodice-ripper.

Instead, I found a fascinating look into the historical era of reformation in Rome. The book begins with the Protestants' takeover of Rome and the courtesan, Fiammetta Bianchini, planning her escape to Venice with her partner in crime, a dwarf named Bucino.

Dwarf. Courtesan. Not a romance.

In fact, there is little romance found in the life of a courtesan. The story is told through Bucino's point of view, a down-in-the-gutter perspective, and not just because of his height. Backstabbing, trickery, gambling... and all to keep his mistress in business.

Fiammetta is beautiful, yet cunning. Bucino is understandably horrific, necessary to keep the wheels running. The supporting characters, like Fiammetta and Bucino, are lonely, which only makes it seem like more like a strange, dysfunctional extended family.

I'm impressed with Dunant's depth of research. Well written and perfectly described.

4.75 out of 5.0 Mulled Wines.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Editor's Note: Take III

Why you?

Kristin – Books for Breakfast, Drinks for Dinner:
Ask the guy who ushers me out at bar close as I'm spouting off the
importance of reading Margaret Atwood. Some gifts are meant to be shared.

You can read the rest of the Litblog E-Panel Number 5 here. Many thanks to Dan Wickett for inviting me to participate.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Editor's Note: Take II

I failed high school algebra. Twice. Which is why it has taken me this long to figure out that I'm off schedule. If I plan on finishing 150 books this year, then I should have 50 completed by the end of April. The fourth month. Four goes into twelve... three times, carry the one, whatever.

Less cocktailing, more reading.


I'd like to change the logo (ha, what logo, you say, and you are correct... it's slap-together crap). Please e-mail me at with a quote. Be kind; I'm spending my money on books and vodka, remember.

32. "Like Water For Chocolate" ~ Laura Esquivel

"Like water for chocolate" means to boil over, and everything is on high simmer in Tita's family, based on a Mexican ranch. Her sister married Tita's sweetheart, her mother is a tyrant, and her other sister rode off the ranch astride a horse... and a soldier.

Chatty, familiar, cozy in tone, like sitting around a kitchen while the bread is baking. Each chapter begins with a recipe and the instructions are worked into the narrative.

The voice lulls the reader into believing anything, that tears can affect taste, that love can create lights. And it's such a sweet ride.

4.3 out of 5.0 Ultimate Chocolate Martinis.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

31. "Dope" ~ Sara Gran

I've never been a fan of noir-style thrillers. Until now.

Gran creates a female character, Joe, who doesn't delve into the underbelly of New York City but wallows in it. Hired by concerned parents, she plays private dick (private chick? - too much) and visits her old haunts on the seedy side of drug use and abuse in search of a missing college girl.

Two years clean, Joe struggles to avoid the desire to use. The details of preparing heroin for injection - the crinkle of the paper, the clink of the spoon - explain more than her occasional glance or swallow.

The dialogue is snappy-fresh, like a peppermint stick. Whodunit? I'm not telling, but I applaud Gran's unique and shocking ending. It's hard to surprise a mystery/thriller writer. She succeeded.

4.5 out of 5.0 Bad Habits.