Monday, August 21, 2006

81. "So Long, See You Tomorrow" ~ William Maxwell

The Smiths and the Wilsons are patient friends, each working someone else's land and suffering their own families. However, after Fern Smith falls in love with Lloyd Wilson, it shakes each family until the foundations crumble.

The narrator meets Cletus Smith, the son of Fern, in the empty house his father's contractors build in town after his mother dies. After the workers leave for the day, he and Cletus climb on beams, rummage through wood scraps, and always part with, "So long, see you tomorrow."

Maxwell doesn't skimp on details, yet this book is barely at a novella's length. It is a simple but psychologically complex look at regret, secrecy, and growing up. Each character is given equal opportunity to tell his or her story, at least as imagined by the narrator. Though we know from the first pages of a murder, the question of "why" will echo long after the book is closed.

4.8 out of 5.0 Lukas.

80. "Wives Behaving Badly" ~ Elizabeth Buchan

"You know what you need. You need to read a summer book. You need to read something breezy and mindless."

Okay, I tried. Recommended by a friend, I attempted to immerse myself in the story of Minty Lloyd, the other woman who eventually got the man to leave his wife and marry her, and now balances life with an older husband, twins, and a high-stress job. Not very well, I might add.

From the beginning, Minty fights against the shadow of the ex-wife, Rose. Perhaps I could sympathize with her, but after finding out that Minty not only was Rose's friend, but stole her husband and her job, my irritation grew. Wife behaving badly, indeed.

The characters are one-dimensional and snarky. If I lived this life, I would have chugged a liter of Grey Goose and bottle of sleeping pills a long time ago. So, rather than waste much more time, I flipped through the pages, read the obligatory "happy" ending, and wondered what I was missing in this otherwise well-reviewed novel.

.75 out of 5.0 Silly Cillas.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Editor's Note: Take X

"I'm not going to make it," I've said. I wrote it here, I told my friendly librarian, I confessed to friends, both via e-mail and over coffee. "I'm not going to make it."

And what would it matter, really? People fail to meet goals all the time. I've failed at something on a daily basis for years.

But after hitting the 75th book, the tone of the e-mails changed. Instead of taunts that people were rooting against me, I received book lists. The wonderful librarians in my hometown put their heads together and made a list of novellas and short books, then smile encouragement whenever I stop in. Authors, readers - none of whom I've met in person - offer ideas and gentle prods.

As I've said before, what I'm doing is not going to bring "world peas" or cure cancer. It's simply a challenge to myself, with the egotistical hope that it may touch others in some way. Like this e-mail with the subject line, "I applaud you":

"Stumbled upon your website via the Emergingwriters website I believe. The idea's fantastic especially when you see the disheartening statistics about the dwindling numbers of people who never read past high school."

Thank you. The kindness of strangers...

79. "Black Water" ~ Joyce Carol Oates

"You love the life you've lived because it is yours. Because that is the way that you have come."

Kelly Kelleher, "good girl," political romantic, drowns in black swamp water after a drunk senator drives her to a potential rendezvous. The book races, breathless, through Kelly's last thoughts, her memories, her reasoning, her choices, until you feel like your own lungs are burning with the strain.

A fast read, but a strenuous one.

4.25 out of 5.0 Black Velvets.

78. "Other Voices, Other Rooms" ~ Truman Capote

It has been a year of new fascinations. Truman Capote, Joyce Carol Oates, jewelry as art. Thanks to the reader that insisted that I needed to read this book to truly enjoy Capote.

Joel Knox, thirteen going on thirty, learns that his long-forgotten father wants to meet him. He arrives at Scully's Landing via a mule and a man named Jesus Fever and is barred from seeing his father by a histrionic stepmother, Miss Amy. Saved by the twisted love of a black housekeeper, Missouri Fever, and the admiration of twin girls around the swamp, Joel doesn't immediately want to flee this strange world. And neither does the reader.

Opulent and flushed with excess in life, Capote brings that depth to the descriptions. Each line is thick with detail. There are no simple trees or birds, but dogwood and blue jays. This commitment to elevating the experience is pure Southern syrup.

I've yet to find a crazier cast of characters, and I am a huge Carl Hiaasen fan. Tip of the hat.

4.5 out of 5.0 Purple Jesuses.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

77. "Jump at the Sun" ~ Kim McLarin

Grace Jefferson is living the life her enslaved great-grandmother would relish -- an educated sociologist choosing to stay home with her two daughters while her husband works at a prestigious science lab.

But after a pregnancy scare, she wonders if she is making the right choices for her own sanity. When McLarin writes of the searingly mind-numbing reality of stay-at-home parenting, she nails the truth to the cross, whether it is pretty or not. After years of reading about the joys and the blessings, it's like switching from Boone's to Champagne.

Mixing Grace's story with her grandmother's and mother's, we learn of family function and dysfunction, abandonment and freedom. What is the truth? What is anyone's truth?

I know this for a fact: Kim McLarin may be the most honest writer I've read in a long time, and while she aims to speak for African American women, she spoke for many of us wannabe super-moms.

4.25 out of 5.0 Rising Suns.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

76. "Household Words" ~ Joan Silber

Published in 1980, this is the Jewish version of Terms of Endearment. Life's a bitch and then you die.

The novel follows Rhoda's life, from childhood until death (yes, I gave away the ending). She traverses the good - meeting her husband, the bad - losing several close family members at young ages, and the ugly - a daughter that borders on hateful.

Without the edgy dialogue and bittersweet one-liners, this book would be too depressing to read, but Silber uses humor like Emeril uses his special ingredients. Pow!

3.5 out of 5.0 Dead on Arrivals.

75. "Casting With a Fragile Thread" ~ Wendy Kahn

Wendy Kahn writes a searing memoir of her childhood in Africa and her move to the United States, somehow attempting to patch these together with the sudden death of her sister.

There are many themes swirling in this book: racial discrimination, familial connections, violence, duty. However, the one theme that consistently reemerges is Kahn's sense of privilege and haughty demeanor. While she grew up in a society that overlooked blacks, she shows no sense of growth. In fact, she only seems to revert to her childlike behavior of whining that her life was so awful, and now her sister is dead, too. At the funeral, she complains that the black people asked to sing needed to have money shoved at them to get them to leave, since they were used to being asked to the post-funeral dinners.

The Rhodesian history is interesting, but unless it directly effects Kahn, she skimps, leaving the reader confused.

Overall, it seems like an attempt at self-congratulations, that she made it through these traumas. Unscathed she's not; I wonder if perhaps several years of therapy might be more helpful.

1.0 out of 5.0 Wildmans.

Friday, August 04, 2006

74. "The Witches" ~ Roald Dahl

Many adults despise Roald Dahl's books, whether because of puritanical health figures or a worship to the gods of political correctness.

In this case, we have a grandmother who smokes smelly cigars (dash number one) and witches who are trying to kill off all the children in the world (dash number two because witches, i.e. Wiccans, should be protected for their religious rights).

Dahl is long dead, which is a pity, because I would like to see his written responses to today's political climate.

Back to the book - the young hero arrives at his Grandmother's in Norway after his parents die in a mysterious car accident. There, to keep his mind off mourning, she tells stories of witches - what they really look like, what they act like, and, specifically, what they want to do to little children.

On holiday, the boy finds out that he is hiding in a ballroom full of witches, who are there for the international witches convention. He gets to meet the grand high witch herself, but not without losing part of his own identity.

Not for children (or adults, for that matter) who cannot separate fact from fiction. Read aloud over a period of weeks to my own kids, they hung on every word. There may be pirates or silly milk cows in summer movies, but only their imaginations and this book were enough to incite several nightmares.

3.5 out of 5.0 Non-Alcoholic Eggnogs.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

73. "Saving Fish From Drowning" ~ Amy Tan

Not since Susie Salmon from The Lovely Bones has there been such an endearing narrator - dead narrator, that is.

Bibi Chen died of unknown circumstances just before she was to lead a group of 11 friends to Burma on an art exploration. Her tales from the other side, one that Bibi compares to the Buddhist 42 day rest period before reincarnation, show a snarky yet intelligent soul. During her funeral, Bibi is frustrated to find that her friends decide to go on with the trip without her.

This decision imitates a fateful true-life adventure: several Americans have disappeared in Burma (now known as Myanmar). Tan takes detailed research and entwines it with Bibi's story.

Unlike many of Tan's former books, this isn't mother-daughter politics. However, she delves into Asian issues, as well as Americans and the views they carry with them as they travel.

Even with multiple characters to follow, it's easy to categorize them ("we are a geek, a drama queen," etc.) and appreciate the little foibles that make them real.

4.5 out of 5.0 Black Windowless Vans.