Friday, June 30, 2006

62. "Hamlet" ~ William Shakespeare

If you haven't been forced to read Hamlet for any English course requirements, I highly encourage you to add it to your "must read" list. With the help of several internet sites, understanding Shakespeare is so much easier than when cribnotes were used (oh, way back when I was a wee lassie).

Besides giving us "to be or not to be," "get thee to a nunnery," and other wonderful one-liners, Hamlet is a necessity for understanding modern culture. So many of my students don't "get" jokes in pop culture that are references to Shakespeare's work. Sad, actually.

It's been years since I read this cover to cover. With the hilarity of this website, I am more in awe of the great master, whose writings are, indeed, timeless.

5.0 out of 5.0 Grateful Deads.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

61. " The Interpretation of Murder" ~ Jed Rubenfeld

In 1909, Sigmund Freud descends from a steamship in New York City, preparing to meet his new followers and introduce America to his ideas on psychology. Instead, he leaves months later, calling Americans "savages" and blames the visit for his subsequent ill health.

So much is true. Rubenfeld's book, The Interpretation of Murder, attempts to explain the reason for Freud's extreme reaction.

A young "society" woman is found dead, the victim of strangulation and whipping, in the apartment of a high-class complex. The next night, another young woman, Nora Acton, the intelligent, but headstrong daughter of an upper-class gentleman, is similarly attacked, yet survives. The mayor of NYC invites Freud and company, including Dr. Stratham Younger, to engage Nora in therapy in order to find the perpetrator before another person is killed.

There's death. There's hijinks. There's romance. And there is beautifully rendered imagery of a New York City none of us can imagine, one where horse carriages were beginning to be outlawed because the excrement was considered "pollution." Rubenfeld not only did his homework, he stayed after class and clapped the erasers. All of the research is precise and intricately woven into the narrative.

Not just a thriller/mystery, but a historical hit. And a reminder to me that I haven't read Hamlet in a while. I can't believe the film rights haven't been sold yet, but the book itself won't be released until September. Put it on your wish list.

4.5 out of 5.0 Head Bangers.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

60. "White Teeth" ~ Zadie Smith

I expected to dislike this book, based on my preconceived opinion of the author; first, because someone once told me that she sniffed and turned on her heel when approached at a writers' retreat, and second, because I disliked On Beauty.

I love giving people second (third, fourth, etc.) chances.

White Teeth is about the Smith and Iqbal families, centered around two unlikely friends, Archie Smith and Samad Iqbal. "Epic in scale," (I'm becoming cliche) this book is not just about these characters, but their extended family, circle of friends, even memories from the womb.

The first 250 pages seem plotless. I didn't notice. So entranced by these odd situations and hilarious characterizations, I would have followed Smith through fire and brimstone.

Later, the book takes on terrorism and race, very fascinating, considering it was published in 2000 before the 9/11 literary echo.

Between the scope, the hysterical descriptions, and wicked sharp wit, I was reminded of Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex. Brilliant work by Ms. Smith. I may need to reread her recent work.

4.75 out of 5.0 London Cocktails.

Friday, June 23, 2006

59. "Birds in Fall" ~ Brad Kessler

A plane crashes into the ocean near an island off the coast of Nova Scotia. An ornithologist, Ana, along with several of the other family members, stays at a bed and breakfast on the small island while waiting for search and rescue to find her husband.

Kessler beautifully weaves mythology, poetry, and music to provide the tapestry that acts as a backdrop to the tragedy. Though several characters are the sources of the tale, each has a unique voice, a fascinating take on the meaning of death, grief, pain, healing. It's also the most diverse set of characters (ethnically, religiously, morally) that I've seen in a novel.

Lovely, lovely work.

4.5 out of 5.0 Chambard Frosts.

58. "The Sound and the Fury" ~ William Faulkner

A book Faulkner wrote completely for himself, The Sound and The Fury is the story of the demise of the Compson family. Told through four different point of views, including that of Benji, a mentally retarded 33-year-old, this novel exemplifies the use of tone and voice in literature.

However, the stream of consciousness style of writing bored me to hair-pulling. I wanted to love it. I really did.

Thematically, it's crammed to the brim. The relationship between the Compson's and their African-American servants is fascinating, especially as the family slides farther into poverty.

Overall, a necessary read, though, personally, not an entirely enjoyable one.

2.5 out of 5.0 Hurricanes.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Editor's Note: Take VIII

As my aunties used to say: Uff da.

My reading is current; however, my updates are not. Right now I'm going through a phase where I don't have anything nice to say, about anything, so I'm heeding mother's advice and not saying anything at all. Very uncritic-like. I'll get over it in about 12 hours.

As you may remember, dear reader, my heaven would be filled with books. All I would do is read. This project was to wrap a piece of death-induced imagery and suck it through a year-long straw, like a thick chocolate malt.

Only now I want to write. I miss it. Characters wake me up mid-giggle, send me scrambling for a piece of paper to scribble on. Snippets of dialogue wind around my fingers.

Oh, but time and promises interfere. And a heavy sleep schedule. I wish I could find some external motivation to keep on reading, meet the pace. Like when the principal promises to shave his head if the students raise $5,000 for the new computer lab. Or perhaps never hearing about another celebrity pregnancy/wedding/birth for the rest of the year. It's not like reading 150 books will cure cancer or inject George W. with brain matter.

I never thought I would say that this is difficult.

I hope I don't ever say that this turns me off reading.

I hope I am able to write again. Someday.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

57. "Because It Is Bitter, And Because It Is My Heart" ~ Joyce Carol Oates

In famed Oates style, this book encompasses the childhood and adolescence of Iris Courtney, a lily-white, calculating girl whose address depends upon her father's recent gambling wins or losses and a mood reliant upon her mother's blood alcohol level. Bonded by a secret to Jinx Fairchild, the African-American star of the basketball team, the narrative is epic in scope, encompassing everything from the Cuban missile crisis to Kennedy's assassination.

These minute details always make Oates writing seem multidimensional, which more than makes up for the wandering plots. Thematically, though, it is packed with issues to consider: violence in society, no matter what class; racial discrimination; power of sex over power of race.

The ending felt forced, like Oates needed to find a way to finish this statement she began with the first sentence. For such a purposeful, manipulative character like Iris, it didn't seem logical. Minor quibble for an otherwise well-written coming-of-age story in a tumultuous time.

3.8 out of 5.0 Cornwallis Rivers.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

56. "Lockpick Pornography" ~ Joey Comeau

1. Anger beyond norm - check.
2. Explicit, creepy sex - check.
3. Lovable Sesame Street icons used in a homo-erotic way - check.

Would-be thieves dressed as Bert and Ernie grope their way through a post-9/11, conservative, ego-centric world. Um, and there's a lot of #2.

Positives: you can read most of this book for yourself at the author's website. Comeau pulls off some great, angry lines reminiscent of Fight Club.

Negatives: seems to be the first draft of something bigger, and when I read something for leisure, I do not want to be editing.

Overall, if you think Ann Coulter is the anti-Buddha, you feel the desire the kick in your television set occasionally, and you like hardcore sex, this is your cuppa tea. Me? I'll wait for this author to allow his "mad skillz" to mature a bit. Rage is a dish best simmered for decades.

1.75 out of 5.0 Back Street Bangers.

55. "Their Eyes Were Watching God" ~ Zora Neale Hurston

Janie's life revolves around her men; in fact, each major change in the plot is due to the coming or going of a man. But it isn't until Janie, who lives in an all African-American town, hooks up with Tea Cake, a man twenty years her junior, that the tongues begin wagging.

Without the backstory of the author, this book does not hold as much allure. She wrote this seventy years ago, but if released in today's market, it would barely make a ripple, sadly.

This is the first time I have been uncomfortable in criticizing a book. Is it because this is a historically important novel for black women, even prompting Alice Walker to write about it in Ms. magazine, and I am just a mixed English-Norwegian with no sense of culture? Perhaps. Or maybe I didn't "get it." But it did not touch me. I could not stand the young Janie. I could not imagine her tolerating such foolishness from Tea Cake. I did not feel like I could understand her, and that, ultimately, brings me back to my central belief of literature -- it does not matter if you are a man, woman, alien, yellow, purple, gay, straight; if the author cannot convey meaning via the character and narrative, then the author has missed the bullseye.

2.0 out of 5.0 Third Degree Martinis.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

54. "Everything is Illuminated" ~ Jonathan Safran Foer

OK. Deep breath.

I did not throw this book. Tempted, but refrained. Jonathan. I know this was your first book. The preview for the indie film with Frodo Baggins looked quirky and quaint. Eyes wide, I watched it twice. But I stuck to my self-imposed deal: book before movie. Always.

I understand the use of a different voice - an "unbelievably" and "incredibly" unique way to tell the story. Perhaps when this was released, it was mind-boggling. Upon reflection, perhaps it was a warm-up.


Thank you for writing a second novel.

1.0 out of 5.0 Stop Lights.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

53. "Vinegar Hill" ~ A. Manette Ansay

When financial troubles affect the Grier family, they move back to their small Wisconsin hometown. Broke, Ellen exchanges cooking and cleaning for two small rooms in her in-law's loveless home.

Banal as this seems, it is a ripe topic to bite into, especially with such frickin' crazy characters. However, Ansay creates them with just enough of a midwestern appeal that I can relate, which makes them even more frightening. The mother-in-law tells the children about a woman strangled with her own braids, right along the path where their mother is now partaking an evening walk. The husband allows his father to beat him.

This is a "train wreck" book. If not for the beautiful prose and dead-on, visceral imagery, I would not have been able to keep reading. But all the way through to the last line - and what a fantastic line - it was worth it.

Personal note: I have an Oprah bias. The fact that at least two of my recent reads are her picks infuriates me. My apologies.

3.75 out of 5.0 Prairie Oysters.

Friday, June 02, 2006

52. "Blindness" ~ Jose Saramago

The white blindness spreads throughout this unnamed country, causing the initially afflicted to be remaindered in a former mental institution. The only one immune to the strange epidemic is the eye doctor's wife.

Mental hospital, eye doctor... indeed, there are several routes to go with this novel. Shall we analyze it as an allegory, an extended metaphor of society's blindness of character and hypersensitivity of class?

Nah. There isn't enough time. This is one of those novels that tickles at the back of the throat like hayfever. Saramago's novel could be compared to Lord of the Flies or The Handmaid's Tale, except it surpasses both in depth and, not unbelievably, current relevance. Using a teaching analogy, I would use this novel for a 300-400 level class.

Even so, I would sit back often to find what others have delved from this book's depths. The symbolism, the dialogue, the disjointed formation of memorable characters... it is not something to absorb with one reading.

4.2 out of 5.0 Rusty Nails.