Sunday, November 25, 2007

85. "Play It as It Lays" - Joan Didion

Maria Wyeth grew up halfway between California and Las Vegas, this no-man's land where she remains, at least mentally.

Written in mostly short bursts (1-4 page chapters), the reader understands the heartbreak of Wyeth, as well as the definitions of her generation - drugs, alcohol, self-indulgence in thinking. Though she could be successful as an actress, she is wasting away under a heavy load of thoughts - a mentally disturbed daughter, an aborted fetus, strange romantic rectangles.

The restraint of these short chapters, as well as Didion's language choices, are impeccably original. A fascinating peek at a different time, and a lovely start of an icon's writing career.

4.0 out of 5.0 Broken Down Golf Carts.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

84. "A Confederacy of Dunces" - John Kennedy Toole

I tried to read this book months ago, but Ignatius Reilly, the main character, annoyed me so much that I quit after a few chapters.

Try, try again. This time, I think reading the forward helped me get in the mindset of the themes in this book. Toole committed suicide after being depressed over the lackluster response to his masterpiece. His mother harassed Walker Percy at Loyola to read this manuscript, and the rest, as they say, is history. The novel won the Pulitzer.

So Ignatius, bumbling, big Ignatius, is New Orleans Don Quixote, aiming his sights at a hot dog stand instead of a windmill. His wildly opinionated philosophical musings are written on Big Chief tablets in his room. Did I mention he's a 30-year-old man still living with his mother?

And what a mother. Due to a couple too many beers, she ran into a store facade, making Ignatius go to work to help pay off her debt. She moans over how Ignatius treats her.

Described as a "tragicomedy," it does create a crazy, symbiotic relationship between all of the odd characters placed in different lifestyles in the Quarter, but the real tragedy is that Toole did not live to see the success of his novel. While Ignatius may be the most piercingly irritating character ever created, at least he is not boring.

3.0 out of 5.0 New Orleans Bucks.

Monday, November 12, 2007

"Most of our suspicions of others are aroused by our knowledge of ourselves." - Anonymous

With a little time, and a little more insight, we begin to see both ourselves and our enemies in humbler profiles. We are not really as innocent as we felt when we were first hurt. And we do not usually have a gigantic monster to forgive; we have a weak, needy, and somewhat stupid human being. When you see your enemy and yourself in the weakness and silliness of the humanity you share, you will make the miracle of forgiving a little easier.
-- Lewis B. Smedes

I just turned 35. In my mind, that is when the senior center calls and asks you to join the pfeffer club, then the church asks you to bring communion to those who are housebound. "What if I'm housebound," I asked. "What if I stopped going to your church years ago?"

Housebound is where my mind is trapped, unable to grow and learn as much as I should have over these 35 years. Childish fights and sloppy insults. Each a weight pinned to a muscle, dragging down my trapezius, tightening the latissimus dorsi.

As the Desiderata says, " Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth." I'm surrendering my pride, my anger. It has done nothing for me.

I know that 35 is not old, but I am not where I saw my 35-year-old self. I did not see these freckled hands, these empty shelves. I thought there was more time to finish things. I thought I would have forever to say I'm sorry.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

83. "Beware of God" - Shalom Auslander

Every story in this slender volume has to do with jerking off, being Jewish, and/or failing to meet expectations. The last theme really hit me as the overriding issue of the entire book... high expectations due to the buzz surrounding this author, but really let down by the barely there attention to craft.

I can't even say that the details are great. While each story strives to be funny (and some succeed), a voice in the back of my head wondered, "Who published this? Did anyone?"

The stories weren't very original, either, which made it even more embarrassing to admit that I laughed occasionally. One short was just a litany of possible "Peanuts" cartoons.

I know Auslander can write; I've seen other articles. But perhaps fiction isn't his forte.

1.25 out of 5.0 Dark Lagoons.

82. "American Pastoral" - Philip Roth

Postwar Newark, Jewish neighborhood. "The Swede" is the WASP-y BMOC, excelling in all three sports and all-American hero. He married Miss New Jersey and settles into quiet, suburban life.

The end.

Or not. Nathan Zuckerman, featured in several of Roth's other novels, discovers the fall of "The Swede," otherwise known as Seymour Levov - his only daughter blew up a post office during the Vietnam peace-hate frenzy.

The first chapters were brilliant in their efficiency of language. So much nostalgia, but not an essence of it. Only when Nathan is at his 45th high school reunion, dancing with a woman he didn't recognize, did I feel like I could smell old people, which meant that it was getting a little schmaltzy for me.

But then the POV becomes Levov's through the end, aptly titled, "Paradise Lost." Pages of assumptions, self-doubt, and glove-making (Levov's company) later and I missed the soft voice of Nathan Zuckerman. I'm still questioning why Roth chose to use his character other than the obvious schtick of the constant narrator traveling from book to book.

This is a novel at the top of several "all time best" lists. I understand the irony of this American "pastoral," but didn't fall completely under its spell.

3.0 out of 5.0 Osmosis Pickles.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

81. "On Borrowed Wings" - Chandra Prasad

"I know what's going to happen. This is predictable."

OK, smarty. Now see what I'm going to do.

Chandra Prasad's debut novel, On Borrowed Wings, seemed to be on borrowed time, but her lyrical passages and fascinating plot captivated this snarly reader in the end.

In 1936, Adele should have married a local quarryman and washed clothes for rich people. Instead, after the death of her brother and father in a quarry accident, she takes her brother's place at Yale. Literally.

Instead of going for the laugh like so many women-in-drag stories, Prasad creates a wondrous world of books and learning... even an appearance by Amelia Earhart. Fantastically researched, she captivates the culture and society of the Yale class of 1940, as well as the many families that surrounded them in New Haven.

4.25 out of 5.0 Yale Cocktails.