Thursday, November 30, 2006

131. "Valley of the Dolls" ~ Jacqueline Susann

I remember hiding The Third Deadly Sin when I was in middle school. If memory is correct, the would-be rapist yanks a tampon out of the almost-victim.

This is the stuff that teenage girls (who wear glasses and are considered nerdy) adore. Sex, gore - yet all in an informational paperback that can be plugged into your purse, able to teach you about all the things your mama never wanted you to know. Perfect.

Valley of the Dolls was on a similar "no touch" list, though now I'm not certain why. Published in 1966, it shot up on all of the best seller lists, I assume because of the scandalous relationships of the women. As one reporter said, "It's time we knew that women liked oral sex." I'm assuming that's why my good mother shook her head when I pulled this book from the library shelf.

Reading this book now is a study in social behavior. Do women still act this way? Did they really ever behave like this? And why aren't the women the dolls? (Okay, that was my big revelation.)

Many authors owe Jacqueline Susann for paving the way to sexy, power-driven mini-dramas. It is the original trashy novel and shines brilliantly in its own place.

2.25 out of 5.0 Sex Cocktails.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Editor's Note: Take XV

One of my college acquaintances, after drinking from a raised tube - beer bong - and burping his fraternity song, blearily told the same joke over and over: "What has two thumbs and likes blowjobs? This guy!"

Through the sandpaper of my eyelids, I look at this last pile of books and think, who has two thumbs and is insane?

Eventually you will be forced to read my success or failure blog post. Right now, odds are on success. This pleases me, but also causes me to reflect on the past year. What did I gain from this experiment? What did I lose?

These answers will come soon enough. Right now I have twenty more books to read.

But near the summit, I feel these things: human kindness extends farther than borders or oceans. Strangers can become friends without ever meeting each other. Reading can become addictive, even to the extent of harm. Reading can also be the last breath that restarts your heart.

As two mentors would say, "Onward and upward" and "Godspeed, John Glenn."

Monday, November 27, 2006

130. "How to Breathe Underwater" ~ Julie Orringer

Some people just can't get enough of their teen years. Personally, I would like to dump a lot of those memories; however, they linger like a nasty garbage stench. Orringer inhaled deeply and exhaled a slender book of short stories.

Each story involves a child... a child hiding something, a child filled with shame, a child searching for love. Even the adults act like children, bossy in their requests for attention and respect.

Minor gripe: similes are overdone. If they were a steak, I'd send it back. When one sentence contains four similes, then I wonder if it's her crutch for writing. I hope not and look forward to future work.

3.8 out of 5.0 Holy Waters.

129. "Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?" ~ Lorrie Moore

I think I know why so many women love this book - it reminds us of our teenage selves when we latched on to a queen bee and flitted about. Because, as I told my oldest son recently, "Girls travel in packs and they suck."

Narrated via flashbacks to her hometown, Berie adores her alpha female friend, Sils, who is so beautiful she plays Cinderella at the local tourist trap. In fact, her love for her crosses the line of legality, though never homosexuality; however, this book wisely suggests what many men say about tightly knitted friendships: are they lesbians?

Berie begins the slow decline to boarding school, eliminating her friendship with Sils.

The beautiful essence of this story is that every woman can see herself in these pages. Moore remembers the 1970s and throws away fantastic details like knotted hemp belts, platform shoes, wet joints. There is not a single paragraph where each word has not been screened and sifted until it's properly fitting. It takes amazing talent and ambition to be able to this word by word level.

4.25 out of 5.0 Frogs.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

128. "Slaughter-House-Five" ~ Kurt Vonnegut

You have read this book, whether under the fiery gaze of your advanced prose teacher in high school or while sharing a cigarette with your roommate. You know what this book is about, you recognize its appeal, or you didn't get it. You know the author's name is linked with genius, and you agree, or you shrug, or you punch the code that says "declined to answer."
I am furious. I know that I would have read this book years ago in an advanced literature class in high school, but I was not "AP material." You've heard this refrain from me before. Or, you haven't.
You may see more Vonnegut in this last push for success. Or not.
4.5 out of 5.0 Five Star Generals.

127. "I Lock My Door Upon Myself" ~ Joyce Carol Oates

Calla slips through her early years as if on angel wings, passionate about her love for Christ, her fervor at the church organ. She is married off to a Lutheran and fights against his attempts to procreate. She disappears for hours, days, and the stories begin.

Who is Calla? There was a white woman with flaming hair hiding in the woods. There was another one holding the hand of the black water douser.

As always, Oates masterfully builds tension. Reading her work is a lesson in breaking the rules and creating new ones. Amazing writing.

4.0 out of 5.0 Gin Chillers

126. "The Zygote Chronicles" ~ Suzanne Finnamore

To the uninitiated (or the alumni), a week by week analysis of a pregnancy may seem a bit ho-hum. We are all much more fascinated by the creation aspect.
However, Finnamore's narrator is a cross between a chipper Katie Couric and a, well, navy-toned, serious Katie Couric of the Nightly News.
Sample of her monologue with her unborn child:

The question 'Who am I?' seems pertinent, althought I must say you are doing a much better job with my diet and life than I have done in the past. However, I feel you have some control issues that we may need to confront at a later time.
Breezy novel about birthin' and babies.
3.0 out of 5.0 Test Tube Babies.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

125. "Running With Scissors" ~ Augusten Burroughs

Again, we have a memoir where names have been changed, yet those portrayed are suing the author for libel. If one completely engulfs the self into the Finch family, it's easy to understand the resulting anger.

Augusten relays the story of his mother's fall into madness, his dependency on her psychiatrist's family, which eventually leads to his formal "adoption" by the doctor. While living with the Finch family, Augusten analyzes Dr. Finch's feces, "bible-dips" for quotations relating to the future, engages in sex with his adoptive brother (who is 33 to Augusten's 13), and eats dog food. And that's just the tip of it.

As I thought of how to review this, I decided to go with my gut reactions:

Ha. Ugh. Gross. Sick. Wrong. Sick and wrong. Ha. Eww. Nasty. Sick and wrong again. Ha.

It's beyond quirky. As Natalie, one of the daughters, says, "You can write this but nobody would believe it." Indeed. It's so far out that I don't think Burroughs needs to worry about a libel suit.

3.75 out of 5.0 Facials.

124. "The Keep" ~ Jennifer Egan

I've heard so much about this book that my expectations soared. "It's the best book I've read this year" or "I loved it and it's a new favorite."

From the book jacket: "Danny and Howie are bonded by a childhood prank whose devastating consequences changed both their lives." Plus, there is a convict who is writing their story. Or is it his story?

Howie is renovating an 800-year-old castle while the baroness still lives in the "keep," the section of a fortress which is the last line of defense in a battle. But his motives are unclear; he seems to want to create a hallucination for others without the LSD. The castle helps by being properly ominous and creepy.

But why the convict? It changed the tone, and to me it made the entire story seem forced. Egan's prior book is entitled, Look At Me. Perhaps this was an attempt to get that attention by taking some risks with the writing. It seems to have worked for a lot of people. It didn't for me. I found entire sections of cliches. And when the narrator reversed his spotlight, it broke up what tension was built. For example, "And I wish I knew how to sprinkle these answers around so you'd get the information without even noticing how you got it, but I don't. So I'll just stick them in when the time seems right." Momentum frozen. Also, the ending made me throw the book, which is not something I do often, but when I do it, I mean it.

1.75 out of 5.0 Old Fashioneds.

123. "Being Dead" ~ Jim Crace

The novel begins with Joseph and Celice, naked and cuddling in a protected sand dune. Their skulls are bashed in, their possessions stolen.

Crace takes the book in two directions: back, showing the history of the two zoologists as a couple, and forward, describing the gristly detail of decomposition since the bodies are not found for several days.

While difficult to read at times (I had the song, the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out stuck in my head), this parallel story structure is a lovely metaphor for relationships - of lovers, of friends, of bodies.

3.5 out of 5.0 Dead on Arrivals.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

122. "This is Not a Novel" ~ David Markson

"Timor mortis conturbat me. The fear of death distresses me.
And what is the use of a book, thought Alice, without pictures or conversations?

There is no such thing as a great movie. A Rembrandt is great. Mozart chamber music. Said Marlon Brando.

Eliot died of emphysema in conjunction with a damaged heart.
Pound died of a blocked intestine."

And so it goes.

Markson returns to the deaths of famous people, all the while throwing in the occasional anecdote or factoid. This is not a novel, in the typical sense. Is it readable? Enjoyable? That depends upon your taste.

It was an engagement in patience, for me. I prefer my stories to have characters (not just "Writer") and plots. When I want to appreciate words, I read poetry. After twenty pages, I began to squirm; after one hundred pages, I was ready to throw down in defeat.

This is not a novel. Perhaps you would appreciate it more than me.

1.0 out of 5.0 Erk and Jerk with Dews.

121. "I Am Not Myself These Days" ~ Josh Kilmer-Purcell

A memoir about an alcoholic drag queen (Aqua) and her boyfriend, "Aidan," a crack-using masochistic hooker.

I won't even use the cliche "train wreck."

Instead, I'll quote the author: "[...] I saw enough 'very special' sitcom episodes about the dangers of drugs to know there aren't a lot of happy endings."

While the descriptions of Aqua's nights out are humorous (in that sad, pathetic way of watching someone slide downhill into the realms of hell), Kilmer-Purcell seems bent on entertaining the reader rather than telling his story. He ends sections with sentences like, "this shut up my inner Episcopalian teenager," without delving more into his past life. It's frustrating. Bait and switch. Here I am, no, you can't see me.

Of course, I assume this is his motive; however, I think it's cheap and assumes an unintelligent reader.

1.5 out of 5.0 Queen of Scots.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

120. "The Year of Magical Thinking" ~ Joan Didion

Joan Didion had an awful year. First, her daughter is comatose after complications due to pneumonia. Then, her husband of nearly 40 years dies of a massive heart attack.

To survive each day, she creates her own system of denial. She manages the mornings by doing crossword puzzles; she maneuvers through the day by avoiding places that remind her of John, her husband.

Eventually, she'll have to go through the typical stages of grief. But, as she states at the end of the book, she hasn't gotten there yet. She has no resolution.

I'm a bit tired of widows and widowers after a series of books. Perhaps it is the current vogue topic or theme. However, of all the books I've read, Didion's is the best, most likely due to the non-fiction aspect. She is still trying to remember the two days before his death. Reading about her struggle is like gazing through peanut brittle: too "mudgy," as her daughter says. But I can't imagine writing about it at all.

I felt pretty cool when I figured out that the slightly different letters on the cover spelled out "John," her husband's name. Unfortunately, that was the biggest jolt of excitement that I had over the book. It's more the timing than the writing.

3.75 out of 5.0 Black Magics.

Editor's Note: Take XIV

Welcome readers.

I'm averaging 500 hits per day now from people all over the world. I am receiving 10-20 emails each week. You all are motivating me during this last push.

Someone brought up other media; I'm in "talks" to do everything from an on-air interview to a written essay. Keep your fingers crossed for me.

Also, another reader said that I would have to do something more spectacular if I reach my goal this year. Ideas?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

119. "Talk Stories" ~ Jamaica Kincaid

Jamaica Kincaid's collection of her short essays is from The New Yorker's, "Talk of the Town" section. During 1974 to 1983, Kincaid worked at finding her writing voice. Though some of the essays are obviously experimental (using second person POV, leaving the narrator out of an interview), most are simply the cultivation of a writer's ability.

Unfortunately, I did not appreciate the essays like many others. Rather than finding myself charmed, I was bored and irritated. This often happens when I'm faced with this idea that New York is the center of all literary life... at least, "serious" writers. This implication in Talk Stories just rubbed me the wrong way.

2.0 out of 5.0 Jamaican Yo-yos.

118. "Good Grief" ~ Lolly Winston

Sophie Stanton is widowed while in her 30s. This novel follows the year after her husband's death.

Sound familiar? Indeed. I thought it would be too similar to P.S. I Love You, which I reviewed in September. Men die of cancer, women nurse them, then let them go. Widows move on with their lives. Et cetera.

This is the good book. This is the realistic book, or at least the believable book. And it is the best written book. Perfect blend of tension and release with a dash of scintillating details.

3.4 out of 5.0 White Ladies.

117. "Going After Cacciato" ~ Tim O'Brien

Spec Four Paul Berlin dreams of home while hoofing it through Vietnam rice paddies and villages. His father told him that he would see some awful things during war, but he should look for the beautiful things, too.

O'Brien continues to impress me with his descriptive details, the beautiful things amid the awfulness of the context. Psychological trauma is the theme for the Vietnam war; however, in this book it is not as easy to choose the right side.

Cacciato, one of Berlin's squad members, goes AWOL, planning on getting to Paris via a dangerous trek across Asia. The squad tracks him, sometimes to bring him back for justice, sometimes because they are all becoming mentally AWOL as well.

The Things They Carried will always be my favorite O'Brien book, but this novel runs a close second.

4.0 out of 5.0 Shit-Holes.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

116. "Naked" ~ David Sedaris

I'm biased. I can crack up when I hear his squeaky Southern drawl on National Public Radio. It really doesn't matter what he says.

In this series of short non-fiction stories, Sedaris describes his trip across the country, hitchhiking without prejudice. He meets quadripeligics, deadbeats, and Shakespeare-lovers. As always, he recreates these scenes with depth and a critical eye to humor... in this case, the deadpan silliness of being human.


4.0 out of 5.0 X.Y.Z. Cocktails.

115. "The Ditched Blonde" ~ Harold Adams

Carl Wilcox travels from town to town, offering to do odd jobs, like painting, and services as a murder investigator.

Of course. Because that's what people in small towns do. We let murders wait for four years until a passing handyman announces the culprit, motive, and means.

Adams is compared to a mystery writer's Faulkner. Spare in his prose style, I find this comparison logic-free.

As for a mystery, it is textbook perfect. But sometimes shorter isn't better. Why did Wilcox feel the need to travel light and create this enigma of a self? Why did the characters feel compelled to harm and/or murder? Plotted well, yet severely lacking in character.

1.25 out of 5.0 Gin and Sins.

Monday, November 06, 2006

114. "Sophie's Choice" ~ William Styron

Sophie, a Polish woman sent to the concentration camps during WWII, had to make a terrible choice.

The end.

If only. Instead, Styron inserts the southern charmer Stingo as the narrator of this book. Stingo is desperate to be a writer... a critically acclaimed writer. He's also desperate to get in a girl's pants (any girl, please, for the love of Mike).

Instead, Stingo is forced to deal with both southern blue-ballers and a Jewish "princess" -- all deny his wishes, leaving him frustrated.

I know the feeling. Each time I learned more about Sophie, truly the most interesting, complex character, Styron slipped away. Sometimes he allowed a trail of ellipses (...) to ensure that the reader knew he or she was being led astray.

Clocking in at over 500 pages, I can't believe I put this on my list of books to read; however, even my husband was surprised that I hadn't tackled this book before (and he's not a reader - blasphemy). After being teased through tortuous prose, I began to skim for Sophie's story. Unfortunately, I didn't figure out that I should have done this until page 300-something.

Sophie's choice? Heartbreaking. Styron's guilty-perverted narrator? A pain in the ass.

2.0 out of 5.0 SoCo Limes.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Editor's Note: Take XIII

1. If you die, your books get bumped up on my to-read list. However, I do not recommend aiming for this end in order to capture my attention.

2. I'm going to make it. And it's thanks to Anissa (I hope I got the spelling right) at my local library, where she grabbed slender volumes from the shelves and set them aside for me. It's thanks to those of you who have sent your recommended lists and advice. It's thanks to some really great germs that knocked me out for a couple days, so I had time to catch up.

3. Mail bag goodies:

"You may remember that I was rooting against you; now I've turned the tables double or nothing against my friend that you WILL finish your goal. I'm broke, so do it for me in Detroit, kay?"

"We are no longer sending you advanced copies based on the subsequent reviews." My note: Ha! I can't be bought! Or, I can, but you forgot to mail the books with vodka, silly rabbits.

"I would like to be talking to you about your quest. If it is not minding to you, could you tell me if you have heard voices to be talking to you and saying you must read so very many books?"

"Why isn't there more publicity? You need to contact NPR or NYT." My note: Ha! Publicity for what? To feed my insanity? To explain the method to my madness? Or, as someone else wrote:

"One person can make a difference. As soon as I started following your blog I realized that I was allowing my brain to rot in a cube at work and a rectangle at home. I'm going to join you for the last quarter of your challenge and try to read 25 books. Thanks for the inspiration."

Read books... it's what's for breakfast.

113. "Harmony of the World" ~ Charles Baxter

As I've said before, I like a side of quirk with my book-breakfast. There is no shortage of it in Baxter's Harmony of the World, a short story collection that reels from the passive loser to the maximum hysteric.

I have difficulty in writing reviews of short story collections. I think this is partly because I pick favorites, and then wonder if I can rate a book based on a select few.

However, in this case, I liked every one of the stories. The overall feeling of this novel - to me, at least - was one where we are all one click above hopelessness. Each character seems on the verge of something, whether it's failure or forgiveness.

Aren't we all?

3.75 out of 5.0 Red Eyes.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

112. "Flush" ~ Carl Hiaasen

Preface: I adore Carl Hiaasen. His writing is hysterical, his looks are rugged, his books are top-notch cupcake pleasures. Not many people could get away with creating a song to go with his or her novel. Oh, but he did.

But recently he has zigzagged away from writing novels about strippers, killers, and ex-governors to writing quirky mysteries with a heavy save-the-environment message for kids. And he succeeded with Hoot.

Not so much with Flush.

Noah, the teen hero, is out to gather evidence to support his father's accusations against a floating casino. His father believes the owner releases the sewage into the sea. His father is correct, but rather than figure out how to report this to nonbiased authorities, he chooses to just sink the boat. In jail, he needs Noah's help.

Unlike Hiaasen's other novels, there is a strange mood of normalcy. Sure, the dad is a bit passionate about the environment. But is anyone attacked by a frozen dead iguana? Or stabbed with a stuffed swordfish? Depressingly, no, which is why I read his books... I adore the quirk factor.

2.0 out of 5.0 Monkey Businesses.