Friday, December 29, 2006

150 books, one year... a recap

It only seems natural to end this journey with the novel that spurred my goal into life - "To Kill a Mockingbird." Every year, I type the first chapter, just to feel what it was like to write those stirring, magnificent words. It reminds me of greatness, and how few achieve it.

I started this project as a way to lose weight. I had forgotten that until I read the archives. My weight has remained the same. My appreciation for literature, however, has multiplied.

I realize that I gave some authors a hard time. It is my instinct to delete those entries or erase names or critical passages. But I think that would be unfair, not just to me but to those who relish change. So, to Nicole Helget and James Frey, I was wrong. You can write non-fiction without making it dry or tasteless. Just cover your ass by putting "composite characters" somewhere in your introduction.

Averaging one book every 2.43 days, I've read everything from horror to history. Often I made the choice to carry a book around with me through the day. The minutes added up while waiting for kids to get out of school, sitting through long waiting room visits, and literally half-watching the water boil (it's amazing how much pasta we eat). I've read in bathrooms and public bathrooms. I've read while my children did their homework and while my students worked on their assignments.

I'll admit I've been flaky. My husband would make a comment and I'd look at him blankly, my hand permanently creased so thumb and pinkie can support a five pound tome. I didn't participate in any work-related committees, which may or may not have influenced whether I was hired (I wasn't).

But once a week, I walked into my local library to smiles and greetings. "What number?" the librarians whispered. They chose thin novellas for me when I was getting toward the end. They pumped me up when I felt like I could not possibly read another book about women who've lost their husbands.

So, I owe them thanks, every one of them who made this road smoother. Also, the countless e-mails from Haiti, Canada, Japan, China, Greece, Turkey, etc., etc. You didn't believe in me. Or, you thought I was a goddess. Either way, you motivated me to open the dusty pages of an old book instead of tuning in to Thursday Must-See TV.

I have advice for anyone who wants to try this experiment, but you'll have to take me out to hear it. I've been a shut-in for too long. My favorite watering hole sent my husband a condolence card. Not true, but I know they've missed my business.

There are two quotes that represent how I feel: "Don't join the book burners. Don't think you're going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don't be afraid to go in your library and read every book..." ~ Dwight Eisenhower. And: "Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking." ~ Albert Einstein.

I've read widely. Now I'm going to read deeply. On the list are the top 100 American books of last century (at least according to this). Hand in hand is reading the banned or challenged books. I've found in the past that they are often my favorites.

I'm also going to finish my own writing projects. My first deadline is March 20th for a novel. I aim to option my screenplay in 2007 (Brad Pitt, if you're still interested, give me a call - and, oh, I wish I were joking). Whether I share the process of writing is to be seen. It may be too dull: "Sat in front of computer again and played b-b-b-b with my lower lip for the required four hours." But, for now, I'm unemployed. Lemonade from lemons.

The blog shall remain "Books for Breakfast, Drinks for Dinner." However, I'll finally have time to try some of these cocktails.

Peaceful wishes to you in 2007,

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

149. "Absurdistan" ~ Gary Shteyngart

Misha, the obese, sweaty son of a Russian mafia lord, wants to return to New York City, home of his girlfriend and rap music. However, his father killed a man from Oklahoma, so Misha is on the permanent "no-admittance" list.

He schemes. He eats sturgeon. He schemes. He drinks Hennessey. He schemes. And he figures that he could become a Belgium citizen, perhaps making it easier for him to slip by and enter the U.S.

Absurdistan is adrift, too. The country relies on Halliburton (known by all as "Golly Burton") and American Express. Misha, as the 1,238th richest man in Russia, buys his way into politics and politician's daughter's panties.

Clearly a joke from the first lines, sometimes Shteyngart takes it a little too far. Mixing in dead bodies from the civil unrest with a throw-away joke about Starbucks is strange. Yet, so is Misha.

I thought Shteyngart was trying to be political. However, after I closed the book I realized that he just wanted to be funny. Overall, he succeeded 75 percent of the time.

3.75 out of 5.0 Russian Quaaludes.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Editor's Note: Take XVII

Before I do the year-end wrap post - wherein I claim that reading 150 books made me good enough, smart enough, and gosh darn it, people liked me - I'm posting my favorite reads of the year.

In no particular order:

"Middlesex" ~ Jeffrey Eugenides
"Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee" ~ Charles J. Shields
"The Tender Bar" ~ J.R. Moehringer
"Eat, Pray, Love" ~ Elizabeth Gilbert
"Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" ~ Jonathan Safran Foer
"Of Mice and Men" ~ John Steinbeck
"In Cold Blood" ~ Truman Capote
"White Teeth" ~ Zadie Smith
"Saving Fish From Drowning" ~ Amy Tan
"The Night Watch" ~ Sarah Waters
"Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West" ~ Gregory Maguire
"Angle of Repose" ~ Wallace Stegner
"The Book Thief" ~ Markus Zusak
"Midwives" ~ Chris Bohjalian
"The Inhabited World" ~ David Long
"St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves" ~ Karen Russell

148. "The Emperor's Children" ~ Claire Messud

Yet another overwrought ode to New York City... this time using 9/11 as the climax. For all those who have loved this book, including reviewers, is it because of the city?

I ask this question because this novel received outstanding reviews. I found the typical NYC liter-ahry scene (nepotism, pseudo-intellectuals, snobbery) tired and gray. I hoped with each new page that it would get better. It didn't.

No backstory about the book. It's simply to awful to suffer through.

.5 out of 5.0 Festering Boils.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

147. "Desperate Characters" ~ Paula Fox

Desperate characters, indeed.

Originally published in 1970, this book engages the ridiculous and mundane lives of middle-class couple, Otto and Sophie Bentwood. Aging and childless, they search for some meaning amidst the mediocrity.

Every character is familiar, whether it's the drunk on the street or the friend engulfed in her own relationship melodramas. And while each character is bankrupt with faults, it's difficult to hold back empathy.

A bit heavy on the adverbs, but that's just the composition/ creative writing teacher in me complaining.

3.0 out of 5.0 XYs.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

146. "Old Mr. Flood" ~ Joseph Mitchell

Old Mr. Flood is a composite character based on several men the author knew as "true New Yorkers." Each essay deals with Mr. Flood's battle with death; he believes that his longevity (he's 94) is due to a diet of strictly fish.

The reader follows him from the wharf to the restaurants, where Mr. Flood brings his own to be boiled or braised.

While an interesting character, the essays are repetitive and remind me of my own rambling notes when digging through the details of my own characters. I'll even ruin the end for you... he turns 95, still drinking whiskey and eating clams.

2.0 out of 5.0 Whiskey and Waters.

Monday, December 18, 2006

144. "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" ~ Dai Sijie

Two young men, victims of "re-education" under Mao, are sent to a remote village in China. Poorly educated, book hungry, they find an acquaintance who has a trunk full of novels. Each book is devoured, then served up to the little Chinese seamstress, the princess of the hills, the most beautiful girl in the area.

Part history, part love story, this novella is entertaining and informative. I had no idea that General Mao cut off education to hundreds of thousands of Chinese, sending these would-be students to act as slave labor for villagers.

I appreciated the desire to spend all night reading, then reprinting the words on the inside of a sheepskin jacket, to hold the words close.

This is the first time in a while where I didn't anticipate the end of the novel.

4.25 out of 5.0 Red Royals.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

143. "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves" ~ Karen Russell

My nomination for the best book of short stories for 2006.

Russell, at age 25, has created an astounding collection of misfits, each looking for a steady center. We have dead sisters, missing parents, oddly named children. Russell brings us from the depths of the ocean to the icy slope of a glacier with the errant touch of hope.

Every word, every sentence, is meticulous in its detail, like a Faberge egg, and equally as delicate.

I laughed, I cried, I took it out for coffee.

4.8 out of 5.0 Werewolves.

142. "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life" ~ Roald Dahl

My first reaction was surprise; I had never considered that the father of such fantastic kid fiction wrote for adults, as well.

Dahl fictionalizes some high adventures that he had after returning from the war and settling down on his farm. He and a friend named Claud end up in various kinds of trouble. Where does the truth begin? Since he published this as fiction, who cares?

Two of the stories made me gasp out loud, once in a giddy breath and the other a hiss between the teeth. Any writing that can evoke that kind of emotion is brilliant, in my opinion.

4.5 out of 5.0 Old Country Martinis.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Editor's Note: Take XVI

1. Who puts Norman Mailer or John Updike on a to-read list when trying to finish nine more books before the end of the year? Ahem, not me. At least, not anymore.

2. As of today, I'm officially unemployed, so don't send me any more e-mails full of admiration. I can read a lot now because I have the time.

3. As of today, I'm officially unemployed, so if you know of a job digging ditches, please e-mail me.

4. I read a third of Paul Auster's book before I threw it across the room. The first lesson in writing is to make the mundane interesting. A step by step interpretation of a man's day - including how many poops plopped in the toilet - is a deep, dull hell. But I won't count it as a book read, just a book thrown.

5. E-mail fun:

"My friend is the one who keeps emailing you about our bet. I just want you to know that the bet against you was her idea not mine. I hope you meet your deadline."

"Couldn't get laid?"

"YOU, THE QUEEN OF READING AND GENERAL CREATIVITY, WEREN'T AP MATERIAL? If that's true, then AP is stupid. And I should know, since I teach AP. From the self-appointed President of the Canadian wing of your fanclub."

"What's your final book?" "Read (insert title) for your last book." "Will you read my book for your last book?" "I'm sending you (insert title) so you can read it for the last book in your journey."

"Yawn. Read something good."

"How are you going to top this in 2007?"

Monday, December 11, 2006

141. "Cat's Cradle" ~ Kurt Vonnegut

A false religion, Bokonon - but "every religion is based on lies" - a new crystal labeled ice-nine, and a writer who's focused on the atomic bombing of Japan.

All the makings of a Vonnegut parody-of-the-century special.

I can't explain this book. It must be read. It's inventive, yet based in human truths. It's hilarious, yet desperately honest.

I thought I might become a Vonnegut fan. It's now official.

4.8 out of 5.0 Ice Picks.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

140. "A Thousand Acres" ~ Jane Smiley

When searching for information about this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, I read that it is a 1980s version of King Lear set in Iowa. That knowledge changed how I read the story, adding more texture than I would have noticed if I'd gone in blind.

King Lear - ahem, I mean Larry - offers to give his thousand-acre farm to his three daughters. While two fearfully submit, Ginny and Rose, his "favorite" daughter, Caroline, hesitates. This sets off Larry like a firework, who alternately snubs Caroline and spews hatred at Ginny and Rose.

Ginny begins to detach herself from feeling anything toward her family, and it's this slow yet shocking change that pushes the reader through the final third of this long novel.

"I heard this is sad," said the librarian when I picked it up. It is, but more in the way that a person's trust can be torn as easily as a few drops of water on tissue paper.

3.25 out of 5.0 King Alphonses.

Friday, December 08, 2006

139. "The Stone Diaries" ~ Carol Shields

Daisy Goodwill Flett drifts through her common life with the emotional interest of a, well, stone. The simple chapter titles ("Birth," "Marriage," "Children," etc.) lay out her life in a linear vacuum, but the strange moments interrupt the simplicity.

If I were to guess the author's "what if" process of thinking, I would question, "What if a boring, simple character can have significance to the reader?" The answer lies in the careful details and description of Shields's prose.

3.5 out of 5.0 Rocky Rocks.

138. "The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane" ~ Kate DiCamillo

This is the story of a china rabbit who gets lost, learns to love, and is found again.

DiCamillo is the author of Because of Winn Dixie and The Tales of Despereaux, both wonderful beginning chapter books for children. But this is the first of her books that I found too brutal, at least for kids under the age of ten.

I'd love to teach a young adult/children's fiction course using this book because of her use of imagery and symbolism, especially the Biblical/Jesus figure of a simple china rabbit. Marvelous work.

3.75 out of 5.0 Milks (well, I've run out of non-alcoholic drinks).

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

137. "You Are Not A Stranger Here" ~ Adam Haslett

Deceptive in it simplicity, Haslett's ability to take a scene and write it to suit the tone, setting, personalities, besides details and descriptions, seduces the reader into following his Pied Piper call through the pages.

Several short stories, underlying themes of betrayal, sexuality, connection to the world and each other.

This is the novel to teach students what you mean by "every word counts." Amazing work.

4.75 out of 5.0 Zwiters.

136. "Housekeeping" ~ Marilynne Robinson

After attempting Gilead, I dragged my feet as I chose Robinson's first novel. From the first sentence, I knew that this would be an entirely unique experience.

Ruth and Lucille are taken to their grandmother's house and placed on the porch. Their mother soothes them with graham crackers and tells them to wait. She gets stuck in some mud and, through a mouthful of strawberries, asks some local boys for help. Upon extraction, she hops into the car and flies off a cliff to her death.

And it goes on. The string of robotic family members to watch over the girls. The history of the large lake that contains the body of not only their mother, but their grandfather, too.

Perfect tone and voice. The language revved up the crazy a little to enthusiastically toward the end, but overall, a glowing achievement.

4.25 out of 5.0 Fish House Punches.

135. "Just a Geek" ~ Wil Wheaton

I clipped Wil Wheaton's photo out of Tiger Beat magazine and taped it to my closet door, along with all the photos of River Phoenix. At the end of the movie, Stand By Me, River tells Wil that he should become a writer.

River Phoenix died of a drug overdose. Wil Wheaton is trying to salvage a career after years on Star Trek by writing in his blog.

His blog has been a source of entertainment for me over several years. I expected an extension of that in this book. Instead, there is the cop-out regurgitation of past blog entries. Even putting that aside, Wheaton's distressed ego constantly takes over the writing. Wah, I only got a standing ovation at the Trekkie convention. That sort of thing.

A bit heartbreaking for the 12-year-old girl hidden away.

1.25 out of 5.0 Skeptics.

134. "Everyman" ~ Philip Roth

I don't know why it took me so many attempts to glide into the pages. Once ensconced, I didn't put the book down all day.

Roth takes the metaphorical microscope and turns it on an aging man, whose health problems barely outnumber the amount of past affairs and wives. He dies within the first page, so there is no surprise; however, his life shows slivers of clarity, like the relationship he has with his daughter.

There is no room for pity here. Boys with stomach ailments die. Acquaintences commit suicide. The narrator steeps himself in death until the skepter caught the scent.

4.0 out of 5.0 Dan the Mans.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

133. "The Funeral Party" ~ Ludmila Ulitskaya

From the book club website:

"August 1991. In a sweltering New York City apartment, a group of Russian émigrés gathers round the deathbed of an artist named Alik, a charismatic character beloved by them all, especially the women who take turns nursing him as he fades from this world. Their reminiscences of the dying man and of their lives in Russia are punctuated by debates and squabbles: Whom did Alik love most? Should he be baptized before he dies, as his alcoholic wife, Nina, desperately wishes, or be reconciled to the faith of his birth by a rabbi who happens to be on hand? And what will be the meaning for them of the Yeltsin putsch, which is happening across the world in their long-lost Moscow but also right before their eyes on CNN?"

All of this packed into 160 pages. It was overwhelming, especially all of the names. But after getting past that, it was a powerful book. Unique in the metaphor between Alik and Russian politics.

But would I read it again? Probably not. Unfortunately, I can't figure out exactly why. Is the final push to meet my goal staining my impressions? Or have I simply read so many books that I'm not very impressed with anything now? Has this experiment destroyed my love of literature?

Deep thoughts for this bitter-ice Sunday.

No grade due to my own confusion.

Friday, December 01, 2006

132. "Honky"~ Dalton Conley

Dalton Conley's childhood has all the requisite normalcies: sleepovers with friends, Little League games, bus rides to school.

Knives being held to his throat.

This memoir/non-fiction book delves into Conley's life as one of the few white people living in the tenements off Avenue D in New York City. Rather than a tell-all, cry-me-a-river diatribe, it is a book that analyzes the issues of race and class.

Questioning how and if his "whiteness" got him out of jams (setting a friend's apartment on fire, for example) is part of the appeal. Here is the story of a boy who desperately wanted to be called, "nigga." There is no way to make sociology more appealing.

4.5 out of 5.0 New York Cocktails.