Monday, May 29, 2006

51. "Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee" ~ Charles J. Shields


If I were asked to write a blurb for this book's jacket, it would go a little somethin' like this:

"The book rocks."

Mockingbird is a beautifully written portrait of Nelle Harper Lee, friend of Truman Capote, brilliant author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Shunning the dry academic style of a biography, Shields melds hundreds of interviews and facts into a narrative that bends and flows through the river of Lee's life.

After reading In Cold Blood and watching Capote, I am infuriated that Lee was shoved into such a minor role in Capote's world. I will go so far as to say that Shields's book is a better example of the time of the Clutter murders and should have been used as research material. Simply, I would rather see this novel portrayed in film.

However, it is the portrayal of Lee that is most fascinating. While I have an unnatural heroine-worship due to her novel, I can't imagine anyone not being charmed by her wit. Though it examines some of the possible answers to her withdrawal from the literary circles, it also allows the reader to come to his or her own conclusions.

285 pages. It did not leave my hand for five hours, through a typical work and family day. I regret to say that I will not loan this copy out. Buy your own.

4.99999 out of 5.0 Gin and Tonics.

Editor's Note: Take VII

A silly whim... "I'm going to read 146 books in 2006." Let's round it up, since my mathematical skills are zero times pi. So, 150 books. In 365 days.

And I don't want to just read the books. I want to rate them. Review them. Preferably using an alcoholic beverage scale.

When I began this venture, I thought I'd pull some friends and colleagues into my web of egotism. I never imagined receiving several daily supportive (and critical) e-mails a day or getting faithful viewers from Greece, Spain, Portugal, Japan, England, Norway. Books for Breakfast is getting 200-plus hits per day. I owe thanks to all who have linked to my website, especially Dan Wickett at Emerging Writers Network.

So, to celebrate hitting 50 books, here are the top (anonymous, of course) e-mails. Enjoy:

"I think your [sic] insane. Reading is important to well-being, but think of all the good you can do with this wasted time? Every [sic] think of volunteer work?"

"Dame folle ! J'aime votre modèle. Mettez à jour plus de photos, svp." (Um, thanks? My interpretation: Damn woman! Bad role model. Send naked photos.)

"First, I want to say how much I enjoy reading your blog. Second, are you out of your fucking mind? :) Third, why no thriller/romance?"

"Request: Nicolas Sparks." (Ai-yi-yi. No comment. Or that was comment enough.)

"What the hell are you drinking in your latest pic. Love the blog." (It's called a UV Bomb Pop shot. I was told the ingredients, but after five of them, I cannot recall anything except it tasted just like those popsicles I used to get from the ice cream truck. The photo was taken after the fourth. Obviously.)

"I can't believe someone reads more than me. Since so many writers read your blog, don't you feel like you are a bit too critical? As a community, we should be more supportive of each other's work."

"Look me up when you're in Glasgow. First shot is on me."

"A friend gave me your blog. We have a bet on whether you'll succeed. Sorry, but I'm rooting against you. No one can read 150 books a year and have a regular life."

So. Will our heroine crack under pressure? Will her vision suffer permanent damage? How many books will fall into toilets, tubs?

Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall, ninety-nine bottles of beer...

Thursday, May 25, 2006

50. "Which Brings Me to You" ~ Steve Almond and Julianna Baggott


Jane picks John out at a wedding, the one who stands back with his hands in his pockets during the garter toss. John sees Jane and thinks, "Nice ass." They meet on the golf course and proceed into the coatroom for the obligatory one night stand.

Except it doesn't happen. Instead, John stops them. He asks that they write each other letters admitting their greatest love disappointments.

Sure, I'll go along with this. Especially when it's flavored with Almond and Baggott.

This is the "He Said, She Said" of writing. The chapters flow back and forth as the letters flitter across the months. As Jane notes, we find out as much about the person through the telling of the tale, as the story itself.

The novelty soon wears off and the climax is tense enough to break 44-lb. fishing line. Gimmick, yes. Good writing, fortunately, also a yes. Worth buying? No.

3.0 out of 5.0 Miami Showers.

49. "Speak" ~ Laurie Halse Anderson


Class, this is an example of a young adult novel written correctly.

As soon as those words formed in my head, I cringed. What is correct? It's all aesthetics and personal. Then I remembered that this is my blog, I'm the one buying the drinks around here, therefore what I say shall reign supreme.

Ahem.

Poor Melinda is scorned and shunned by her classmates (sound familiar?) after she calls the police and busts a summer party. Between friend angst, family drama, and academic irritations, Melinda is having a terrible year.

Like Prep, there are the class distinctions. Similarly, the school year is plotted by dances and Valentine's Day flowers. While plodding for adults to read, we must remember that this is how many of us counted our days.

The difference between the two books, and, perhaps, the easiest way to express my feelings, is in the writing. While the protagonists are similar - pathetic, depressed girls - in the same situations - schools, public vs. prep - the writing in Speak is phenomonally better. It's the difference between stabbing someone with a plastic fork and a razor blade. For example, after a feeble attempt at self-injury:

"I open up a paper clip and scratch it across the inside of my left wrist. Pitiful. If a suicide attempt is a cry for help, then what is this? A whimper, a peep? I draw little windowcracks of blood, etching line after line until it stops hurting. It looks like I arm-wrestled a rosebush.

"Mom sees the wrist at breakfast.

"Mom: 'I don't have time for this, Melinda.'

"Me:

"She says suicide is for cowards. This is an uglynasty Momside. She bought a book about it. Tough love. Sour sugar. Barbed velvet. Silent talk. She leaves the book on the back of the toilet to educate me. She has figured out that I don't say too much. It bugs her."

3.5 out of 5.0 Roy Rogers.

Monday, May 22, 2006

48. "Prep" ~ Curtis Sittenfeld



Angst-ridden Lee Fiora bends her parents' will and her own logic by attending an eastern boarding school for four years on scholarship. Typically, there is the debate about money vs. lack, popularity vs. none, boys' desires vs. girls' desires.

If not for the blowjobs and references to anal sex, this should be marketed as young adult. Then I could have been prepared for this tedious ride in circles. Most people hated high school. Why waste time reliving it?

The author, young and honored distinguishly for her age, has earned herself a mark in my memory belt. Never read her material again.

.75 out of 5.0 Fretful Martinis.

Friday, May 19, 2006

47. "This Book Will Save Your Life" ~ A.M. Homes


This book will not save your life.

Faced with his own mortality, Richard Novak begins a quest to change his life. He forms new relationships with unlikely candidates: an Indian donut shop owner, a movie star, a hysterical housewife. He also tries to reform his relationships with his brother, his ex-wife, his son.

This book will not save your life.

I love how A.M. Homes is unpredictable. She allows the characters to show themselves through dialogue, oftentimes inexplicable histories and psychologies. And just when things begin to stabilize, she throws in a curve, like a horse in the middle of a sinkhole.

But this book will not save your life.

There is a reason for the title. It didn't take much contemplation to figure it out. The things I liked about Homes's writing is also the novel's downfall. The last five pages have a WTF quality. After such a crazy, loopy ride, I expected... redemption. A savior.

2.75 out of 5.0 Malibu Bay Breezes.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

46. "Eat, Pray, Love" ~ Elizabeth Gilbert



After reading The Last American Man, I fell in love with Elizabeth Gilbert's voice. Her pop culture references, her use of the word "fuckin'," the scattered "duh"s and "um"s - it's my language. Except so much better.

She continues this natural style in Eat, Pray, Love, except she turns the lens on herself. After a divorce, a devastating love affair, then financial problems, Gilbert finds herself drained and listless. Several "coincidences" occur and she realizes that she is looking for spiritual guidance.

The book is a journal of her travels through "The Three I's" - Italy, India, and Indonesia. Each pearl of a story represents a bead on a meditation string, though it is hard to imagine God's response to ruminations on gelato, swearing in Italian, sex (and lack of it), and self-doubt.

The self-doubt rolls into self-pity, which is hard to stomach when knowing Gilbert is a successful writer... in Rome. Or a yoga retreat. Or Bali. And, though loneliness follows one anywhere on a globe, I never got the sense of bone-aching depression, except in the first few "beads."

Still, I rooted for Gilbert's happiness and yoga enlightenment. I wanted her to find love again. And, I found a new desire to study meditation practices. This book is not for everyone, but it did touch me.

4.0 out of 5.0 East India Cocktails.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

45. "Lies My Teacher Told Me" ~ James W. Loewen



"[...] books actually make students stupid." If the author is correct, then American education needs an overhaul.

Most of us have watched with a mixture of discomfort and honor of "heritage" as children replay the first Thanksgiving - happy Indians, the introduction of turkey and maize, the first mix of the American melting pot. We've known that's not how it happened. We've known that Columbus may have discovered this new world (or did he? - this book analyzes that "legend"), but that native peoples lived here for centuries.

Take that itch of discomfort and ratchet it up to that of 10,000 mosquito bites on your nether regions. That's what this book does. It explains the fallacies of the history taught in today's schools, as well as the reasons why history needs to be taught differently. It's much easier to understand the hatred toward America when president after president invades or bombs other countries.

This book also dissects our views of common figures or events. Helen Keller - a socialist! Nixon - a liar! OK, some of it is obvious, but the majority is fascinating viewpoints that links more than just dates and names.

Unfortunately, it is dull. It is history. I know the author tried his best to make it interesting (and his passion is pronounced through his use of exclamation points). But... it's history. This is not a book that you can read while swinging in a hammock. Sn-zzzz.

3.5 out of 5.0 Stars and Stripes.

Monday, May 15, 2006

44. "Number the Stars" ~ Lois Lowry



Annmarie Johansen is happily skipping from school in Denmark with her friend, Ellen. Nazi guards stop them on the street, telling them not to run. So begins the Newbury Award-winning novel about the Nazi invasion of Denmark and one girl's bravery to save her Jewish friend.

Although this is a "children's" book, there are some frightening images. Most children need to have some history of the Nazis hatred for the Jews, as well as, er, some common drugs. And I don't mean the medicinal kind.

Simply worded, beautifully captured, this story is a wonderful prerequisite to "The Diary of Anne Frank."

4.25 out of 5.0 Shirley Temples.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Editor's Note: Take VI

"What? There are ads now? What a sell-out."

Oh, you have no idea. But this isn't about the ads.

I'm in talks with an agency that gives books to children. I'd like to do something for them, perhaps a PayPal donation for literacy. Since my platform is extreme literacy (now, wouldn't this make a fascinating television show - sweat beading on my face, zoom in on my eyes flickering back and forth across the pages), I believe that I need to make a statement other than "I can read a lot of books - oh, and drink a lot of cocktails."

Thoughts? Ideas? Suggestions?

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

43. "Shoes Hair Nails" ~ Deborah Batterman


Batterman's debut of short stories delves at the heart of quirky relationships, but leaves the "why" to the readers. Why isn't she angry with her mother/why did she take the poodle/why did he disappear? The depth of the details and apt descriptions of the characters makes it feel as if one is peeking through the curtains at the neighbors across the courtyard.

The stories, Shoes, Hair, and Nails, are the best of the bouquet, twining loss with possession in all of its complicated forms.

While some stories asked the reader to suspend disbelief without providing enough of a net to support the feeling, the compilation is a worthwhile glimpse of characters who are waiting to react.

3.8 out of 5.0 Snow Shoes.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

42. "Saving the World" ~ Julia Alvarez



Two different centuries, two different altruistic women following stubborn men out to save the world. However, this meaningful theme isn't enough to rescue an over-exaggerated novel that relies too heavily on coincidence.

Alma is a Latin American author of some acclaim living in Vermont (sound anything like the actual author? - yes). While failing to complete her optioned novel, she takes a mental roadtrip through the lives of Isabel and Don Francisco, who, in 1803, tried to vaccinate several cities and countries from smallpox.

When Alma's husband goes on a humanitarian mission to her native Dominican Republic, she stays behind, enduring speedily narrated heartaches at home.

Alone, the 1803 smallpox journey would have held my interest. Combined with the mediocre saga of modern eco-terrorists and cancer victims, it's a mess of skipped emotions and missed characterization.

2.0 out of 5.0 Island Hoppers.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Editor's Note: Take V

I'm behind schedule. When I write that word, I always pronounce it like this in my head: "Shhheduuuaaal." I'm behind shedual.

Fifty books by May 1 would keep me, numerically, hypothetically, at the speed to complete this task of 150 books in one year. Alas, I could not do it.

However, luck strikes. I lost my teaching gig for the fall due to budget cuts. While I will continue to look for work, this gives me two opportunities - time for writing and time for reading. Also, time to clip coupons and time to knit/weave clothing for my ever-growing children.

I'm getting great responses from new authors; please, e-mail me at emeraldwriter@yahoo.com if you have an ARC or galley.

The look of "Books for Breakfast" will be undergoing some changes in the next few weeks, but I vow to keep some things the same: my weakness for vodka, dedication to new cocktail recipes, and penchant for fine reading (as well as my throw-it-in-the-puke-bucket tantrums when disappointed).