Friday, September 29, 2006

96. "Straight Man" ~ Richard Russo

Straight Man: a book to put aside when sending out multiple C.V.s to universities/colleges, particularly for positions in an English department.

"In English departments the most serious competition is for the role of straight man." This can be interpreted several ways, but according to the narrator, William Henry Devereaux, Jr., he is quite literal. Every line is a quip, a joke, but when the department - and the entire university - begin to panic about budget cuts and professor terminations, his wit is unappreciated and interpreted as a commitment to the college's needs, even if it costs all of his friendships.

In fact, "Hank" (which he goes by to distinguish himself from his father, who is also the father of modern literary criticism) just has blinders on. He doesn't see the state of his daughter's marriage. He doesn't recognize the potential for disaster at the college. So when he puts on a fake nose and glasses and threatens on a newscast to kill a duck a day until he gets his budget, he was joking. Or was he?

Russo's portrayal of the stereotypical middle-aged man coming to an understanding of his role in relationships/life/career is far from a cliche. In fact, Russo plays the straight man, letting his characters speak for themselves. A sassy take on an ancient subject.

4.5 out of 5.0 Ruptured Ducks.

Monday, September 25, 2006

95. "Where the Red Fern Grows" ~ Wilson Rawls

One of my favorite books from my childhood, I began to read it to my children at bedtime. "Is something going to happen to the dogs," my oldest asked. I remembered my third grade class, how each student had to read one paragraph as we wound around the room from row to row. I remembered how it came to me, but I couldn't speak, I couldn't do more than sniffle and thumb up my glasses until my wonderful teacher excused me from class. I cried so loudly in the lavatory that it echoed off the tiles.

"Umm, let's read Frankenstein, instead," I said.

Other geeks may get into arguments over whether Superman would kick Batman's ass, or vice versa. We bibliophiles argue which is the better boy and dog book: Old Yeller or Where the Red Fern Grows.

In my view, it's easy. Two dogs vs. one. Indian legends about, er, where the red fern grows.

Years after I first read this book, it still had the power to reduce me to a puddle. Sometimes the subject matter is more effective than the writing.

4.0 out of 5.0 Colorado Bulldogs.

AXED - "All the King's Men"

I've only three months to read 30 books. While I realize that this is an important novel to read for my own mental growth, it will have to wait until the end of this challenge.

After all, it was heavy enough to crush a Kleenex box. Whew.

94. "The Night Watch" ~ Sarah Waters

Secrets and silence are key to a Sarah Waters book. In this novel, the focus is on the lives of several Londoners whose weblike connections create both security and secrecy in World War II.

Three things fascinate me about this novel. First, the intricacy of detail and description. I know that all good books begin with the characters, but Waters has a gift of writing more deeply, finding the slight quirks that create memorable beings. Also, she writes about gay and lesbian themes with amazing aplomb and accuracy. It is painful to see the torment of Kay, Helen, and Diana as they love privately, even afraid of their neighbors' talk.

But the main thing that amazed me - and is probably one of the reasons why this book has been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction - is the chronology of the book, which begins post-war with the characters still keeping secrets that aren't revealed until the end of the book, translating into the beginning of the war.
4.25 out of 5.0 Silent Erasers.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

93. "Water for Elephants" ~ Sara Gruen

Jacob Jankowski reminisces about his days as a circus veterinarian as he wastes away at the age of 93 in a nursing home.

With photos from Ringling Bros. (circa 1920-1940) punctuating each chapter, it is obvious Gruen spent much of her time researching the language of the circus. From the types of acts to the nicknames for performers, she is excruciatingly detailed.

Everyone loves this book. It is a story of redemption, of good versus evil, of hope within darkness.

However, I only met the writing midway. Perhaps reading all of these books makes me jaded. For example, since I recently read Angle of Repose, a similar "old man reflection" piece, this didn't resonate with me, especially because Angle is an amazing piece of literature (and a Pulitzer prize-winner, as well). Perhaps the young Jacob's naivete didn't ring true to the elder Jacob's bitterness. Or, perhaps I didn't find her imagery and description as fresh as others.

Keeping all of this in mind, it is a decent read. Too pat ending, too many coincidences. But for a light sorbet to cleanse the palate, you could do worse.

2.5 out of 5.0 Dancing in Septembers.

92. "Jesus' Son" ~ Denis Johnson

As a writer, I know that imagination expands upon life experiences, but it does not mean that there is a blurred line between reality and fiction.

As a reader, I wanted to hold Denis Johnson and reiki some love into his soul.

This is how a master crafts his characters. And what flawed characters Johnson creates amid bars, cars, and stars (ooh, that was horrible - my apologies).

I'm teaching my students about descriptive writing. Rip out one page of this book and you will find more detail and imagery than most Book of the Month club selections for ten years.

4.25 out of 5.0 Purple Jesus Cocktails.

Monday, September 18, 2006

91. "Queen of Fashion" ~ Caroline Weber

With Sofia Coppola's upcoming release of Marie Antoinette, it seems only natural that there is a new, marketable interest in this child-bride later sent to a date with the guillotine. This novel, to be released in October, naturally desires to capitalize off the surge.

However, rather than repeat the well known biography, Marie Antoinette: The Journey, this author chooses to focus on the more fantastic... the clothes. Post-New York fashion week, many will adore this look at the miniscule details, from the fixing of the teeth to the tightening of the waist to the pouf of the hair.

I'm a simple girl. My fashion sense extends just beyond making my socks match. The embellishments, the flounces, the silks. All seemed just too much for me and I'll admit to skimming through the last half (which includes nearly 80 pages of detailed notations). It did inspire a certain sympathy for this girl whom was whisked from playing with dolls to courting royalty.

2.0 out of 5.0 Head Bangers.

90. "Them: Adventures with Extremists" ~ Jon Ronson

"Are the extremists onto something? Or has he become one of Them?"

Well, shit and shoepolish. After reading this book about the mysterious Bilderberg Group, similar conspiracy theories shared by both Ku Klux Klan members and al Qaida, and the weird fraternal piss-fest held in a California forest with George Bush, Sr., as emcee, it's difficult to *not* look over your shoulder. That and the fact that someone at the National Homeland Security office in the U.S. has my blog on its casual checklist.

Ronson writes about his adventures with extremists with a dash of sarcasm and a pinch of caution. He alternates between fear of death threats and skepticism of crazy "tin foil hat" ideology. This writing style is brilliant as it pulls the reader along this roller-coaster ride.

Contact me to save your tent space for the Apocolypse. And bring your own canned food.

4.5 out of 5.0 Hello Police.

Friday, September 15, 2006

89. "P.S. I Love You" ~ Cecilia Ahern

Faithful readers are aware that I make myself read the books before I can see the films. In this case, I had heard some buzz about the screenplay adaption, so I felt a need to compare the two.

Logline: A grieving young widow discovers her husband has left her a series of ten tasks, written in ten monthly notes, to help her ease out of her grief.

Screenplay: witty, sharp, quickly boils down the book.

Book: too much going on, too many characters with too many alternate issues, too little understood at the end, too "Bridget Jones" for my taste. Minor props for not following the routine, pat ending (though the film has shot two different versions, and my guess is that romance seekers want to see the happy ending).

It's a nice idea that didn't have a proper follow-through. Again, the screenplay attempts to remedy that, but it is hemmed in by that "romantic comedy" box.

Look for the film in the late spring of 2007, starring Hilary Swank and Gerard Butler. Or don't.

2.0 out of 5.0 Sweet Lovin's.

88. "Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West" ~ Gregory Maguire

I love "what if" questions, especially as a method to create new ideas. In this case, Maguire asks, "What if the Wicked Witch of the West got a bum rap?"

Elphaba, born to a horrified mother and penitant vicar-father, is green, mouthy, irritable, yet completely stirs compassion in the reader. When she is forced to room with Galinda (who later becomes "Glinda") at school, she remains aloof, yet interesting, as opposed to her society-obsessed roommate.

While much of it is hysterical (the introduction has the Tin Man and the Lion arguing over whether she is a hermaphrodite or just a homewrecker), it has the potential to be overanalyzed. For example, there is a marked argument as to whether Animals (creatures who have evolved enough to speak, teach, etc.) should remain simply animals. Segregation theories? Abolishment of religious persecution? You may find it all here, though it doesn't make the book as entertaining.

Note: the book is very different than the musical; neither are appropriate for the kiddos.

4.0 out of 5.0 Red Witches.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

87. "Angle of Repose" ~ Wallace Stegner

I had to remind myself that I chose this thick, small-printed novel for a reason - it won the Pulitzer Prize the year I was born. Where was the world, then? What seemed important, at least to the literary circles?

I found I wasn't the only one interested in history. Lyman Ward, after suffering massive pain in his cervical column and a lopped-off leg, needs to understand the history of his grandmother. Susan Burling Ward, a romantic dreamer, writer, artist, meets Oliver Ward, a crude, quiet engineer who wants to conquer the West. He comes courting with his massive pistol and later sends an elk's head as a gift.

Why did this match work, wonders Lyman. And how?

As a historian, he claims to maintain objectivity, yet the reason for this analysis of a marriage comes after his own wife left him for the surgeon who removed Lyman's leg. However, Stegner's prose is aching in its loveliness. The descriptions of western civilization (or lack thereof) is stunning. As a California girl, he brought back the tastes and smells of the Pacific; as a former New Mexican, he reminded me of pueblos and sage.

The term, "angle of repose" is easy to find out via Google or Wikipedia, but I preferred to wait until the climax, and I urge you to do the same. Quite simply, as Stegner said, "It's perfectly clear that if every writer is born to write one story, this is my story."

4.85 out of 5.0 Spanish Town Cocktails.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

86. "The Lambs of London" ~ Peter Ackroyd

Charles and Mary Lamb are buoyant siblings who engage in conversations about their favorite bard: Shakespeare.

Enter William Ireland, a young son of a bookstore owner, who finds (via a mysterious benefactor) items belonging to Mr. W.S. First, a signature, then a stamp... then a full-length play?

Mary adores Shakespeare. Mary adores William. Charles adores Mary in a strange love-hate way. William wants the adoration of his father. It is a Freudian nightmare.

Truth versus art. When did it become an opposition? Isn't all art truth unveiled?

Ackroyd has an annoying habit of breaking the action for a flashback, easy to overlook except when the flashback has nothing to do with the story and seems to be injected into the book only for shock value and to tie in with the title -- all of us are lambs, in a sense, steadily led by popular opinion or fate.

2.25 out of 5.0 Overcast Fridays.

85. "The Thin Place" ~ Kathryn Davis

On the back cover of this book, someone states, "Davis, God bless her, assumes her readers are intelligent people who are interested in what they are reading."

What an easy way to make this reader feel inferior.

The Thin Place begins with three girls who seem to stumble upon a murder scene. While two of them run for help, the third, Mees, saves the man from imminent death by laying her hands on him.

But this isn't the plot of the book.

In fact, this is a perfect example of a character-driven novel. Told through the point of view of dozens of characters, including dogs, a beaver, God, Jesus, and the town (Varennes), it is more like a portrait in a life drawing class.

With pop-ups from mythology to religion to biology, one must be well-read -- or familiar with Google -- to understand Davis's references. But when I did get the joke, I laughed out loud. When I didn't, I felt like the author's pretentiousness dragged one away from the story. Of course, that may just be my own issues.

I'd like to find out what it's like to teach this book in a literature class. I can almost hear my students groaning already.

4.0 out of 5.0 Maiden's Prayers.

Friday, September 01, 2006

84. "The Book of Joe" ~ Jonathan Tropper

Joe Goffman uses the stories of his childhood to create a bestselling novel, which snares him literary fame, financial security, and a lasting hatred from his hometown's residents.

Not a problem, except he has to return home because his father is in a coma.

Like Terms of Endearment, this book analyzes the relationships of "home," whatever that term means. In this case, not even Joe knows the definition, but by the end of the novel he knows his own heart.

Quick, easy, light read. I always admire honesty in writing, especially when describing situations where gallows humor is appropriate. Tropper isn't afraid to "go there." While he uses the crutch of the sterotypical "girl who got away" and "black sheep of the family," it's not a bad way to pass an afternoon. Plus, it's been optioned for film, so now, as required by my own set of rules, I can go see it in theatres since I've read the book.

3.0 out of 5.0 Harvey's Bristol Cookie Houses.

83. "The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole" ~ Sue Townsend

Adrian Mole, age 13 and 3/4, is having a rough time. It is adolescence, after all, but he also has parents splitting up and dodging work, a dire need for attention, and a wicked sense of humor. Understated, very British, but for those of you who like a teaspoon of irony with your tea, very witty.

Written in strict diary format following almost every day of his life, the reader learns about Adrian via lengthy diatribes or short paragraphs. Perfect for the older teen, but became a bit tiring for me. Been there, lived through it, didn't even get a t-shirt.

2.5 out of 5.0 Hot Fudge Sundaes.

82. "Talk, Talk" ~ T.C. Boyle

Dana Halter, a deaf teacher, runs a stop sign on the way to work. She admits to her mistake and expects the police officer who pulled her over to let her off with a warning or a ticket. Instead, she spends the next day and a half in jail.

Reason? Peck Wilson - con artist, former restaurant owner, smooth operator. He has stolen her identity.

In this age of increasing security caution, T.C. Boyle creates a world where the mythic "worst case scenario" comes true. Interestingly, he also creates characters whose communication skills are rough and guarded. Dana's boyfriend is not hearing impaired, but learned sign language to be able to "speak" with her. As they embark on the journey to find Peck Wilson, Dana's agitation causes her to lose some of her vocal clarity. Meanwhile, Peck's lies form a miasma (favorite Boyle word and it *doesn't* show up in this novel) of panic around his relationships.

But somewhere this novel lost its spark, its Boyle trademark of truth borne of blood and sweat. Even his typically unique descriptions give way to some horrifying cliches. Eleventh book syndrome? If only all of us had that problem.

2.75 out of 5.0 Yell Into the Wells.