Monday, October 30, 2006

111. "The Book Thief" ~ Markus Zusak


Someone mentioned that this was the best book of 2006. I would only hasten to add, one of the best books.

Death speaks and has a sense of humor in WWII Germany. Although his workload has significantly increased, he takes the time to study Liesel, a young girl who is adopted by a wonderful-crazy family where the mother calls everyone a filthy pig in both harsh and loving tones.

Liesel goes to Hitler's Youth meetings, plays soccer in the street, and steals books. Her desire for words is, like mine, insatiable.

Once her family takes in a young Jew and hides him in the basement, Liesel begins to see the world in grayer images. Words are powerful, yet insignificant in the face of war.

Beautifully written with astounding descriptions, this is one of the year's best. Young adult novel? Pshaw. Amazing novel.

4.85 out of 5.0 Tequila Shots, German-style.

110. "The Haunting of Hill House" ~ Shirley Jackson

"Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone."

Buah-ha-ha... until Dr. Montague and a rag-tag band of cohorts rent the house to measure its paranormal phenomona. Eleanor, Theodora, and Luke are charmed by the strange house, as well as terrified by the hauntings brought on by nightfall.

Published in 1959, it is the predecessor to many haunted house books. While nothing is too frightening (due to the flowery language), it reminded me of the quiet horror of And Then There Were None (also called Ten Little Indians) by Agatha Christie.

3.75 out of 5.0 Ghostbusters.

109. "The Pleasure of My Company" ~ Steve Martin


I've always adored Steve Martin. The raunchy jokes in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid made me blush as my father laughed. Plus, my dad resembles him. And I adore my dad.

But I worried when Steve Martin made the "switch" to writing novellas. I refused to read Shopgirl. I actually saw the movie instead, breaking one of my most serious self-rules.

Self-rules are the center of this quirky, crazy book. Daniel Pecan Cambridge is the poster child for OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). He can't cross the street because of curbs and he can't be in his apartment unless all of the bulb wattage equals exactly 155. Add in a narcissistic personality and mix well for laughs.

He's just short of being completely annoying, kind of like Martin in The Jerk. The writing saves his character, even with a nice, pat, Hollywood-style ending.

3.8 out of 5.0 Sand-Martin Cocktails.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

108. "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" ~ Stephen Chbosky


This is the Catcher in the Rye for my generation. Though Holden Caufield will always hold a special place in my heart.

Charlie narrates throughout the book in a series of letters to an unidentified person. A freshman "wallflower," he is befriended by (and here comes the "Breakfast Club"-like categories) a beauty, an emo girl, a feminist, and the token gay guy. Drugs, alcohol, sex, parties ensue.

Published by MTV originally, it is obviously meant for a certain Gen X audience. The ones who memorized lyrics by The Clash or were the first to pierce their lips or eyebrows.

If not of this generation, would you appreciate this book? Probably not. The writing is decent, but not spectacular. The theme is familiar.

But I enjoyed reading it, plus it reminded me of all the music I missed.

3.25 out of 5.0 CpVos.

107. "Torch" ~ Cheryl Strayed

Teresa Rae Wood is dying of cancer. How does her partner of 12 years and her two adult children deal with it?

Simple enough premise. Complicated interpretation.

With all of the good vibes there (death, relationships, Minnesota background), I couldn't understand why I disliked this book until I was midway through it. The writer's creed - show, don't tell.

Strayed takes a good "what if," and quirky characters, but concentrates on filling in backstory rather than showing how the characters are dealing with Teresa's cancer and death. Each character is given this chance to participate, but each falls to the same fate by the puppetmaster... too much history and not enough imagery, dialogue, and ultimately, resolution.

2.0 out of 5.0 Prairie Fires.

106. "A Year By the Sea" ~ Joan Anderson


I remember playing with my youngest son, trying to get him to stop screaming during that pre-dinner witching hour. This woman was on Oprah, and as a stay at home mother it was my duty to watch Oprah in order to participate in park or playtime chat.

What amazed me was this woman basically ran away from the life she was fortunate enough to be living. She ran away from her husband, her successful writing gigs, and her adult sons.

And I remember thinking, "Damn." Jealousy out-yelled my son.

All women feel this way to a certain degree. Perhaps all men do, too. At the time, I put Joan Anderson on a pedastal based on her five minute sound byte. After reading the novel, I feel more manipulated.

Yes, she did turn away from everything. However, she retreated to a seaside cottage where her husband continued to pay rent. Yes, she did have to scrounge and get a job at the fish market. Yet, she also continued to receive royalty checks.

After reading Eat, Pray, Love, I can't stay neutral in my assessment of the writing. It's simplistic and akin to reading a journal. But a journal where the author is seriously self-censoring.

Message: good. Book: poor.

1.5 out of 5.0 Cape Codders.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

105. "Charms for the Easy Life" ~ Kaye Gibbons


Sometimes I wonder if there is a method to the madness; each new book seems to be connected somehow to a book I just finished, whether it's theme or symbolism or characterization. In this case, Charlie Kate is a midwife, but also an incredible self-titled doctor. Pre-World War II, this novel follows the heart steps of Charlie Kate, her daughter, Sophia, and her granddaughter, Margaret.

After saving a lynched man from the tree's limb, Charlie Kate receives a rabbit's foot charm for an easy life. A good question for discussion is whether this is true or not.

The brilliance of this book is in the details. Charlie Kate is a hard woman, even going to the point of threatening a seasoned doctor for malpractice and exacting a wonderful revenge on her cheating husband. But there is a sweet symbiotic relationship between the three women that impressed me with its realism.

4.2 out of 5.0 Crown Cherry Sprites.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

104. "Hostage to the Devil" ~ Malachi Martin


The tagline says: "The Possession and Exorcism of Five Contemporary Americans." Nonfiction coverage of a very memorable Catholic rite, whether known via modern movies or threats by nuns in grammar school.

I should preface my review by saying that I do not believe in a lot of Catholic cawing (for example, Martin seems to imply in his introduction that homosexuality could lead to a demonic possession). Heathen-born and raised, I am not as easily swayed.

Once I put my own prejudices aside, I enjoyed the tales. Nasty, indeed. Horrific, yes. Absolutely convincing... meh.

Well described, well researched, but even when I finished it (sans fever, thank you very much), I felt like I'd been duped into reading religious propaganda. I would have rather spent the time with a Satanist I know and quiz him about the nuances of the devil and demons.

Note to ProfessorGirl - do not read because of the "gnashing of teeth." Nightmare city for you.

2.0 out of 5.0 Devil's Juices.

103. "Midwives" ~ Chris Bohjalian



Sybil Danforth made a rapid decision during a blizzard-ice storm in rural Vermont - how to save the baby whose mother, Charlotte, died during labor.

Or so Sybil believes. Yet two witnesses to the midwife's blunt surgery say that blood "spurted" from the wound. Did Sybil accidentally kill Charlotte?

Told from the point of view of Connie, Sybil's daughter (an OB-GYN, interestingly enough), we learn how one harp string can resonate long after it is plucked. And a lot about vaginas. There is even a vagina that yawns, which pleased me to no end because that is the first line in one of my short stories that was massacred during a fiction writing workshop in graduate school.

But I digress.

Each chapter begins with one of Sybil's journal entries, which are beautifully written in a powerful voice. But it's the sing-song tempo of Bohjalian's plotting and description that amazed me. Need an example of effective dialogue? Here. Need to know about creating suspense? Here.

I did not anticipate the ending. This may throw some of you off, so you will. I hope not because it was such a delight.

4.5 out of 5.0 Midori Sours.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Editor's Note: Take XII

1. I'm not going to make it. It's okay, you can be honest with me. Someone do the math; I majored in smiling and daydreaming.

2. Illness is good. I have read for six hours straight today. Mixing books while burning a 102 degree temperature leads to the desire to either visit a priest or divorce attorney. Especially when mixing Hostage to the Devil with A Year By the Sea. Fortunately, I'm at the crawling stage, so my soul and marriage are safe.

3. When blogging, one may feel the urge to find out who, exactly, is reading his or her blog. If you display neurotic tendancies, do not embed a counter into your blog. You will spend too much time wondering why someone wanted to know "google-margaret-atwood-sexual-symbolism-comparison-to-shit-stains."

4. Who the heck is reading this from the following countries: Ireland, Afghanistan, Poland, Italy, Indonesia, and Chile? Please soothe a dying (okay, suffering) girl's wishes and come forth. (Winks to those in Canada, Egypt, Japan, China, and Yugoslavia... I know *you* wonderful readers.)

5. Short books. Still need short novels. Novellas. Por favor and gracias. An extra abrazo if you send a morphine drip, as well.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

102. "The Inhabited World" ~ David Long


I waited a while to review this book. Fear held me back. Here was an author I respected and had a pseudo-semi-friendship via the luxury of e-mail. I've refrained from posting my friends' books before because of this fear of hurting their feelings or resisting my honest opinion.

I need not have worried so much.

In fact, I am more concerned that this book has not received more recognition. Yes, I'm talking to you, Pulitzer, and you, too, Man Booker. Because The Inhabited World tops my personal list for 2006 novels. It's not just because David Long was the first member of my blog's fan club or his ridiculously incredible taste in books.

Evan Molloy and Maureen Keniston are stuck in the same house in Washington. Evan, however, is dead, a "lost soul" wandering after his suicide. Maureen, while alive, mimics his purgatory by sleepwalking through her days, just barely on the cusp of figuring out how to change.

Beautifully detailed and described, Long sets scenes with the master strokes of Monet. Each sentence invokes meaning as we learn what led Evan to raise the gun to his head that fateful day. Every word is carefully chosen to glean the highest emotional response.

And it did. I wept. It is the first anniversary of a family member's suicide, which may tint my response. But I also wept at the sheer brilliance of the imagery, of Maureen's flaws, of Evan's family history.

I often want to thank an author for a special reading experience. In this case, I'm glad that I can do it personally. Well done, sir.

4.8 out of 5.0 Long Walks Off a Short Piers.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

101. "After Many a Summer Dies the Swan" ~ Aldous Huxley



I finished reading this book two weeks ago, yet I have not reviewed it. Let's play analysis, shall we?

First, I was fascinated that a corridor pass fell out of its pages. For a Mr. Jeff XXX from the office to room 211, dated 10/23/78. Why hasn't this book been read? Why hasn't it been checked out from the library? Once my astonishment passed, I began to worry (as is my nature) that the reasons were negative ones.

Next, I'm not a science fiction fan. While I have read many short stories and novels that would be classified as science fiction, I do not search for it. Seeing this book adored by the sci-fi set also set my brow with concern.

I skipped the pancakes and bacon and just bit in to this book. And I'm still digesting.

Jo Stoyte is a millionaire obsessed with defeating death. He hires Jeremy Pordage to organize crates of papers he has acquired, wherein Pordage finds the possible solution to longevity.

Intermixed are monologues on literature, religion, government, and sexuality. Huxley attempts to be both earnest and satirical in his views on spirituality and money. He succeeds.

It took a while for me to relax into the book. It is still taking me some time to recover from reading it. I question some of his statements, as well as his reasoning. There are little to no literary reviews in which I may take refuge by agreeing or disagreeing with my opinion.

But, as I often state to students and colleagues, isn't that the point of reading - to introduce new thinking in such a way that it inspires others to ask their own questions?

4.5 out of 5.0 Red Deaths.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Editor's Note: Take XI

So. Here we sit. Perhaps you're just catching up, or maybe you have been along for the whole bumpy ride. You may remember when the goal was 100 books. I know I do.

Two-thirds of the way to my goal, I have these words for my tombstone:

She came, she saw, she read... too much.

Again, thank you for the kind e-mails and notes.

100. "Frankenstein" ~ Mary Shelley


Victor Frankenstein tells the captain of an ice-logged ship the story of his obsession with life, so much so that he created one out of a corpse and electricity.

Nearly 190 years after Mary Shelley wrote this novel, it still carries the ability to awe and frighten, especially in this modern age of cloning.

Most people are familiar with the story, prominently through Gene Wilder's Young Frankenstein. Of course, I would much rather get my chills from the pages, and this is the month for such indulgence.

4.0 out of 5.0 Grateful Deads.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

99. "Echo" ~ Francesca Lia Block


The creator of Weetzie Bat has cast her luminescent web again. Echo follows a girl's zig-zagged arrival to womanhood, told through different points of view. In Block's tradition, it is filled with pill-popping, cigarette-smoking, death-defying darkness and angelic imagery. Her books are fairy tales for the jaded.

Considered "young adult" novels, I'm always surprised at her approach to sexuality. She recognizes that teens are sexual beings and writes about it honestly.

Some may find her writing style too jagged or dreamy. I find it hypnotic, as if I've been in the opium den too long.

4.0 out of 5.0 California Martinis.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

98. "Carry Me Down" ~ M.J. Hyland


John Egan, an over-sized, over-tall eleven-year-old, is fascinated by the Guinness Book of World Records, claiming to himself and others that he will be found within its pages someday. When he finds a strange ability to sense when others are lying to him, John believes that this is the power to push him to success.

Fortunately for him, he has several people on whom to practice. His father, jobless for three years, claims to be studying for entrance exams, while his grandmother goes to the track and claims to return penniless. It is only his abnormally adored mother who retains some ability to speak honestly with John.

From the beginning, the mother-son relationship is a bit odd. He stares at her with open admiration; she asks him to stop, but later invites him to share her bed. Could be innocent, but it sets up a strange, suffocating partnership. At the climax, I felt betrayed, as if I hadn't been prepared for the shift in John's behavior, when, upon reflection, Hyland had made it obvious that this was an extremely dysfunctional family.

The understated prose style is entrancing, yet I found myself wondering about the precociousness of this fifth grader. World records = believable. Knowledge of law, physics, and mythology = not so much, especially with his mediocre academic situation.

Still, a mysterious, yet sickening read. Do not indulge if planning on having children any time in the near future.

3.0 out of 5.0 Downeasters.

97. "Mother's Milk" ~ Edward St. Aubyn


I did not know this was the third book in a trilogy about the character Patrick Melrose. Perhaps if I had read the other two books, I would have been more impressed.

Instead, I found Melrose - middle-aged, self-absorbed, overdramatic - utterly without a redeeming quality. His wife, Mary, puts up with his philandering; his two sons adjust to his mediocre attention; his mother allows him to plan her death.

While the sarcastic, caustic wit is written with a razored pen, it was not enough to provoke sympathy for any character except Mary. The different point of views is interesting, but, for lack of a better term, seemed to be a literary device. Many people have loved it; the book is short-listed for the Man Booker award. However, upon completing it, I felt like the mother shown on the cover (I cannot recall the name of the painting off the top of my head): sucked completely dry.

1.75 out of 5.0 Andorian Milks.