Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Best of 2008

While this is not the best of 2008 books, it is the best of the books that I read in 2008. While I had hoped to reach 100 books this year, it's not going to happen. My research and writing is filling every crevice of time, and I have every belief that 2009 will be my year for success.

Enough about me - let's get to the list:

First place, and closest to a TKAM on my list, is HALF OF A YELLOW SUN by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This is ideal characterization and plotting, while dealing with a difficult topic without becoming sappy. I cannot praise it enough.

Other top books of 2008 are (in my reading calendar order):

  • GATES OF WAR, by Steven Pressfield. Long live Sparta and its rich history.
  • THE GOOD EARTH, by Pearl S. Buck. Sensual language and imagery of pre-revolutionary China.
  • FIELDWORK, by Mischa Berlinski. I always find it fascinating when someone tricks me into believing a story is "real."
  • THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY, by Michael Chabon. Early New York, comic books, Jewish history - you can't go wrong.
  • THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO, by Junot Diaz. Dominican boy with no "game" and several pop culture/80's references.
  • A CASE OF EXPLODING MANGOES, by Mohammed Hanif. An interesting take on the death of Pakistan's president in 1988 with prose that sings.
  • A THREAD OF GRACE, by Mary Doria Russell. Italy's role in WWII, as told through several point of views. Simply amazing plotting and characterization.
  • THE GIVEN DAY, by Dennis Lehane. While I hate how much I loved this book, it is a tapestry of Boston history and racism in the 1910s. Lehane, stick to this style of writing.
  • THE CONFESSIONS OF MAX TIVOLI, by Andrew Sean Greer. With the popularity of Benjamin Button, if you want to explore the idea of backward aging, read this book. Bah, read it anyway.
  • SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN, by Lisa See. Stunning historical vision with intricate layering of women's language, both spoken and written.
Honorary mention: LOTTERY, by Patricia Wood. It made me cry, and most of you readers know that is difficult for my black coal heart.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

98. "The Blood of Flowers" - Anita Amirrezvani

First there wasn't and then there was. Before God, no one was.

This is how all of the stories began in 17th century Iran, and a village girl dreams that her own story will have the sweet almond ending of the fables. However, during the comet, her family's luck turns, and she ends up scouring pots with her mother by the "kindness" of distant relations.

Still, the girl dreams of more. In the village, she wove a turquoise rug and sold it for her dowry. Now, her distant-uncle runs the royal rug shop. He teaches her to design, paint, and plot the knots tied on the rugs.

This is not a fairy tale, though, like she had grown up learning. She is married out on a three-month contract - basically, similar to the deal in "Pretty Woman," though she doesn't even get to stay during the daytime. Instead, she weaves a rug that begins to earn her uncle's respect.

Like Arabian Nights, there are fables or moralistic stories intertwined with the main narrative. Most were lovely additions, though I'll admit that I skimmed over them. The girl shows the spirit of many women, tied by their own knots, yet struggling against them. This is what carried the story and captured my interest.

4.0 out of 5.0 Polo Cocktails.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

XX. "The Meaning of Night" - Michael Cox

I just need to say "no." No more faux Victorian gothic-types of novels. It is taking me almost six months to read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and that's more of a fantasy book, besides. So, another one bites the book worm dust.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

97. "Lottery" - Patricia Wood

Perry L. Crandell (L for Lucky) is not retarded, as we learn in the first few sentences. He has an IQ of 76. That point - literally - is what provides meaning in Per's life, along with Slurpees at a place where a pretty girl named Cherry works and being besties with a man named Keith.

Then, Perry wins the lottery. His brothers hound him for cash. His mother sends letters. Without his Gram to protect him, Perry relies on Keith's good advice to protect him along his bumpy journey.

This was one of those books where I thought I knew where the story was going. It's funny, it's poignant, and it's tense. But, to my great glee, the author didn't take the easy way out with the last 70 pages. Sure, some of it is tied up a little too nicely (with a bow on top), but I liked the choices.

It is not Flowers for Algernon. But it is still worthy of our attention.

3.75 out of 5.0 Tall Ships.

96. "The Farming of Bones" - Edwidge Danticat

Another bit of history hidden from American schoolbooks: the Haitian massacre of 1937 (also known as the Parsley massacre). In this book, Amabelle and her "man," Sebastian, are separated during the melee after planning on leaving their respective working lives.

Danticat is brilliant at using language to sing, to play, to lament, to grieve. This is one of the books best read aloud by someone with a lyrical voice.

Sebastian is a cane worker, which is one of the worst jobs for Haitians. His body is scarred from the sugarcane (symbolic for bones because of the way it is burned before harvest). Still, she loves him and plans for he and his sister to leave. His friend leads her to Sebastian's mother's home, where she finds out more about the massacre.

This book should have weighed me down. It was heavy with symbolism and wonderfully written words, but my mind flew away from the horrors. I have read too much recently to be appreciative. Still, my mind goes back to the way the soldiers asked the Haitians to say "parsley," knowing they couldn't trill the r's like Spanish-speakers. I felt that Biblical weight like stones in my mouth.

3.5 out of 5.0 Rum Cobblers.

95. "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" - Lisa See

I find the relationships between women much more interesting than the relationships between men and women. There is a plethora of viciousness that you do not find in a typical male/female break-up, and there is such a waste of anger and jealousy.

While the relationship between two Chinese women, Snow Flower and Lily, is interesting (bonded as "old-sames," which is more sacred than the bond of marriage), it is the historical aspects of this novel that intrigued me into avoiding my life for a rich six hours.

While, we all know about foot-binding, this book goes through the process with specific details. The idea of old-same relationships, as well as female groups formed based on age or status, is also fascinating. But it was the discovery of the only known female-created language, nu shu, that kept me enthralled. As a way to communicate, Snow Flower and Lily write in nu shu on a shared fan. This writing must be read carefully because of nuances, which causes the near-death of their old-same relationship.

I thought of all lost friends after reading this book, as well as the pettiness some women hold in their hearts. But I also thought about the connections between women that cause this new language to be born. It's simply a sweet tale, like deep fried taro.

4.5 out of 5.0 Candy Girls.

Monday, December 15, 2008

94. "A Ship Made of Paper" - Scott Spencer

This National Book Award finalist was the ideal carrot for motivating me through a pile of essay-grading today. Read 10 papers, read 10 pages. Throw the student writing away, then devour the book. Try plan A again. Fail.

Daniel is a model husband-father to Kate and Ruby, though he is not married or the natural dad. Still, he is devoted to them, except for the part of his heart that yearns for Iris, the mom of Ruby's best little buddy at daycare.

While Kate continues on a downward spiral of drinking and obsessing over the O.J. Simpson trial, Daniel and Iris begin an affair. Iris, who is a reluctant African-American ("I don't relate to my race," she says"), is too afraid to leave her buttoned-up husband, so the entire small town soon knows of their indiscretions.

Scott Spencer is a master at passionate, romantic writing. He makes armpit hair sexy. While the play on racial tensions didn't work for me, the taut storytelling more than made up for it.

4.0 out of 5.0 Sex on the Grass.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

93. "Trauma" - Patrick McGrath

Anton Chekov said that if the gun is shown in the first act, it must be fired by the last. The first line in Trauma is: “My mother’s first depressive illness occurred when I was 7 years old, and I felt it was my fault.” Bang.

A psychologist who quotes Freud, self-analyzes his relationships, and creates complex social situations (screwing both his ex-wife and a new girlfriend), Charlie is determined to see everyone's "trauma" but his own.

For lovers of the Gothic style of storytelling, this is a dark haven. For me, it was a cell. I'm writing about a psychologist, and my character would have had a shot of whiskey and told Charlie to see a shrink by the 40th page. Biased? "Yeah, babe, can I gitchu back?"

2.0 out of 5.0 Pegus.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

XX. "The Sister" - Poppy Adams

OK, authors. You get 30 pages. Sometimes you get more, but then you whip a red herring into the batter and I throw your book in disgust.

I know this is up for an award or someone loved it with a capital L. But what has two thumbs and doesn't give books much of a chance? This chica.

Bored. Read about moths and butterfly collections and collectors before. Got the metaphor between the dried up old collections and the dried up old sister living in the house. I fell asleep while reading. Not once, every friggin' time.

If it's worth it, convince me.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

92. "The Confessions of Max Tivoli" - Andrew Sean Greer

With The Curious Case of Benjamin Button arriving at theatres, I was drawn to this novel about Max Tivoli, a man born as a grizzled, old baby, who progresses through the aging process backwards. It is not the basis of the film (which is a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and one that I would not recommend). Still, there are similarities; in fact, even Max claims to see a 12-year-old at a bar in Spain who has the eyes of an old woman and knows she is like him.

Old, gentlemanly Max falls in love with Alice when both are at the birth age of 14. His infatuation drives him to follow her throughout her life, reappearing in his different ages to dupe her into loving him anew. Along the way, his selfishness causes him to lose many of his loved ones, both families and friends, but he still is relentless in his push to possess Alice's heart.

It's a much better novel than I expected. People told me that the ending is bleak. Of course it is. But the writing is phenomonal. Every few pages Greer throws in a description or detail that brings truth to the foreground... a strange oxymoron with this style of fantasy novel. His writing tries to convince the reader that Max can be forgiven for his actions, while socking you in the gut.

4.25 out of 5.0 San Francisco Cocktails.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

91. "Out Backward" or "God's Own Country" - Ross Raisin

Sam Marsdyke is a lonely, beyond socially-awkward young adult who lives on his family's sheep farm in rural Yorkshire. With no one to talk to, he creates his own stories and dialogue, but the thick patterns take a while to understand. Still, between the thick Yorkshire brogue, slang, and made up words, there are several funny moments, like when watching a ram's castrated pal:

"[...] poor castrated sod who kept himself pot-of-one the rest of the year waiting for his charver the tup to come and stay, though I didn’t know what the bugger it was them two had to talk about. Been up to much lately, oh, you’ve been rutting have you, that’s nice, I don’t much go in for that myself these days, not since my knackers were sliced off."

Sam begins a friendship with the new "townies" who move into a nearby farmhouse; their daughter reaches out to Sam, not knowing that the reason he was kicked out of school was due to accusations of rape. As story unfolds, the reader knows it can't end well, but the combination of the unique voice and the natural desire to watch a train wreck carry one through to the final chapter.

Long-listed for the Dylan Thomas prize, the novel is best read when alert and functional. It takes work to understand Sam. Still, I think he's one of the best delusional and unreliable narrators since Keyes's Flowers for Algernon.

3.75 out of 5.0 Ward Eights.

90. "The Picture of Dorian Gray" - Oscar Wilde

You know the story: a portrait that ages while the man doesn't. Intriguing premise. It must be; there are at least four movies about Dorian Gray, the latest to be released in 2009.

But do the movies capture the essence of Dorian Gray? Do they show how Lord Henry becomes a demonic figure in Dorian's life? Can you examine each frame for the perfect snarkiness of dandies and blatant homosexual overtones?

The only disappointment was the familiarity of the language. Later, I read that many of the phrases had been reused in Wilde's play, The Importance of Being Earnest.

Still, read the book. Skip or breeze through the chapter on Dorian's fifteen years under the portrait's spell (gemology, traveling, yawning). But read the book.

4.0 out of 5.0 Greyhounds.

Friday, November 28, 2008

"We read to know we are not alone." - C.S. Lewis

Writing is a lonely profession. I spend most days with my feet up, laptop secured, wrists aching because of my non-ergonomic positioning in front of the TV or trees. I watch my world, a beautiful world, but a lonely one outside of the finches and dogs and squirrels. It is quiet. It is peaceful. It is breath-taking in its beauty and its utter solitude.

Luckily, there are books. Even better, people who love books.

I've been asked to contribute to the blog, The Book Book, founded by the hilarious author of Editorial Ass. While my work will be copy-paste - I take my vodka bottle with me everywhere - the other readers are incredibly gifted. Check-check-check it out.

Also, there is interest in a non-fiction version of this blog. I'd have to repeat my 2006 adventure of reading 150 books in a year ("Could you read more, like 300? Or 365? That's great for marketing."). Or a combination of that and stories about the Effin' Ranch. I'll keep you posted. After all, you're why I'm here. Even you, Cince in Athens, Greece. Even you.

89. "The Given Day" - Dennis Lehane

Dennis Lehane shows amazing versatility in his new novel, The Given Day. While it is no Mystic River, it is also not Gone Baby Gone. He has elevated his writing to near "liter-ahry" greatness.

Boston, 1918. Danny Coughlin works his police beat with dreams of getting his gold badge through hard work and the help of his infamous father, Thomas Coughlin. He lives with Italians, minds his Irish roots, and busts Bolsheviks.

Tulsa, 1918. Luther Lawrence is trying to make something of his new life with a wife and baby on the way. However, there is only so much that Tulsa offers black Americans besides his job as an elevator operator, but Luther's choices send him all the way to Boston to live a life on the lam.

Lehane weaves the stories of these two men with historical elements like the molasses flood, outbreak of Spanish flu, and Babe Ruth of the Boston Red Sox. As a teacher and writer, I dissected his chapters to try to find out what made the heart beat. It's simple, really... have an eye for stunning juxtapositions between fact and fiction and have an ear for incredibly realistic dialogue. However, as a reader, I just devoured this book in a day and a half. Gulp. Yum.

4.5 out of 5.0 Boston Golds.

Monday, November 24, 2008

88. "Empress Orchid" - Anchee Min

Reading this book was a delightful accident. I thought I had requested a book about Tsu Hsi, the Empress Dowager of China who was feared as one of the cruelest rulers in history. Oh, wait. This is about Tsu Hsi's rise to power? Where's the blood, the gore, the examples of just plain awfulness?

Not in this book.

Still, it's a quick read, skipping light as a breeze over all that boring history stuff and focusing on the manipulation of other wives/concubines of the emperor (Hsien Feng). Her servants did the killing and hurting, not Orchid/Tsu Hsi. She was too busy learning how to pleasure the emperor and save the kingdom.

So the writing is sympathetic to Tsu Hsi; it's still an interesting look at Chinese history (yes, I was being snide - I like the history "stuff"). However, after being told that she was one of the most horrible female leaders in world history, I'd like a real view of this woman. Any suggestions?

2.75 out of 5.0 Green Tea Vodkas.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

“The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” - Ellen Parr

I'm curious about a lot of subjects, but this linking from book to book is creating a new feeling in my brain. Boredom. Suffocation. I am miming that I've boxed myself in. Thank you to my sixth grade speech teacher for forcing us to learn mime (yes, I don't quite get it, either).

It's my blog. I can read whatever I want. I can jump from Chinese rulers to paganism to Boston during World War I. And I will. Try and stop me. I'm slamming the door to my room and pouting on the bed.

Ah. Freedom.

XX. "The Sagas of Icelanders"

This compilation of Nordic myth and stories is 750+ pages of history, maps, legends, and pure unedited-yet-translated junk. Oh, I'm just grumpy. I wanted giants and mystical creatures. Look at the cover.

Instead, it's a book for true historians. The sagas read like the Old Testament, barring the "begats." Instead someone with a funky name weds someone else and name their children after relatives and ZOMG - my eyes are blinded by names and what is the friggin' story?!

Note to self: get more sleep or stick to Dr. Seuss.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

87. "The Dwarf" - Par Lagerkvist

Moving from two "princes," I read about this book several years ago, but it seemed a perfect time to review it now because of the dwarf's dedication to his Prince.

The prince is unnamed, but the dwarf is named Piccoline. He is not a jester or a fool, but a general aide to the Prince (always capitalized) during what seems to be pre-Renaissance Italy. Piccoline hates women, hates sex, hates other dwarfs, hates human behavior. However, he revels in degrading (though he hates when humans act degradingly) and killing, whether it's a kitten or another dwarf.

This is a fascinating look at evil and hatred, especially self-hatred. Piccoline is 26 inches of pure malice and fury, yet he is quick-humored. Some of his statements make the reader cringe, while others make one nod and agree. His brutal analysis of human nature leaves one hell of a scar after finishing the novel.

3.75 out of 5.0 Angry Dwarfs.


79-87 - The Dwarf was written by a Swedish author, so I decided to discover more about the Icelandic history, including Finland, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and Greenland. Thus, I found The Sagas of Icelanders. This one is going to take a while - 751 pages.

86. "The Audacity of Hope" - Barack Obama

One sentence post:

If I hadn't voted for Barack Obama, I would have after reading this "how to cure the government" diatribe; however, I wish I had picked his first book instead.

3.0 out of 5.0 Bahama Mamas.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

85. "The Prince" - Niccolo Machiavelli

Insert evil cackle here - I found a way to connect the dots. In A Thread of Grace, there is a scene where a character is about to be tortured, and he comforts himself with the fact that Machiavelli went through the same torture and lived to write The Prince, though it was through dictation.

What interested me the most was the dedication to the Medici family. Readers of this blog may remember my fascination with the family (and subsequent scouring of books). I did not know that Machiavelli was another one of the family's "pets."

This is not a book about a prince nor is it fiction. It's an examination of the role of a prince in military, history, and personality. Or, as others believe, it is a satire on the same subjects. Published in 1532 after Machiavelli's death, we may never know his true purpose in writing about this subject.

However, it's the root of many beliefs today. For example, it is better to be feared than loved by your subjects. Also, a prince should discern good advice from bad. Throw in some history (Greeks, Romans, British) and it is a recipe for a perfect prince. You have heard of the term, machiavellian, right?

3.0 out of 5.0 Petit Zincs.


79-85 covered. 86 - the next "prince" of the United States (President-elect Barack Obama). I made a promise to read one of his books when he was elected. From there, we'll see where "hope" takes me.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

84. "Unto the Daughters" - Karen Tintori

From Sicily to America, the Costa family brought old country traditions and beliefs to Detroit in the early 1900s. The author, Karen Tintori, knew about her grandmother's curses against the evil eye and folk tales about prayers, but she didn't know about the major skeleton in her family's closet: the murder of her great-aunt Frances by her own brothers in an honor killing.

A true story, Tintori digs through her family's records for facts, then writes in a fictional style. While I liked this style of writing, her choice to switch from the past to the "present" seemed awkward and forced at times, like she only wrote that chapter because her editor told her to fill in the information. I would have liked to try it in sequential order because I admired her writing.

An amazing look at Sicilian and early Italian immigrants' lives with the haunting of Frances Costa throughout the book in its imagery and dedication to details.

3.5 out of 5.0 Detroits.


Connected the dots 79 to 80 (Moses led the Hebrews) to 81 (Operation Shylock - where Moses Bellybutton is the "reverse nemesis" of Philip Roth), then to 82 (A Thread of Grace - how Italy helped the Jews during WWII), to 83 (Italian organized crime) to 84 (organized crime with Detroit immigrants).

I'm stuck. When I'm stuck, I look at my leaning tower of books and close my eyes to choose. The game begins anew.

83. "Gomorrah" - Roberto Saviano

Saviano's journalistic look at Italian organized crime has him locked up under a witness protection program. He has received multiple death threats and responds to questions through circuitous routes like a member of the mafioso himself.

Since 1979, the Camorra have organized everything from sweatshops to drug trafficking. This book details how the Chinese unload millions of dollars of fabrics and clothing in Naples every year, but ask for their bodies to be taken home to rest on Chinese soil. Saviano, himself, witnesses how drug addicts are used as guinea pigs to test the quality of a heroin shipment.

When Saviano writes about his first-hand experiences, it is gritty and involving, but when he gets into the history of the crime "clans," it reads more like an 8th grade history text - dry and difficult to swallow. I blame part of that on the translation from Italian to English (this was first released in Italy to more than 600,000 copies sold).

Due to this, as well as my own misunderstanding of the book (I thought it was about a history of all Italian crime - the Mafia, etc.), I wasn't as blown away (pun intended) as others.

3.25 out of 5.0 Italian Surfers.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

RIP Michael Crichton

Michael Crichton, author of Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain, is dead after a private battle with cancer. He was only 66.

Crichton inspired me when I was a young writer. I loved his ability to take unique topics and use the "what if" factor to create amazing plots. I believe he is the one who taught me to do that with my own writing.

Though I snubbed him in recent years because of my own issues against bestseller lists, I've never been disappointed after reading one of his books. I may not have liked the characters or even completely believed in them, but his plotting and sneaky manipulation left me thinking, "What if?"

I hope he saves me a spot in writers' heaven because I'd love to chat.

Monday, November 03, 2008

82. "A Thread of Grace" - Mary Doria Russell

Yesterday, our local PBS station showed Parts I and II of Ken Burns' The War, an insightful look at World War II and its affect on four American towns/cities. The end of Part II showed how the Allies invaded Italy, and I was reminded of this book.

Yes, I cheated. In my dot to dot experiment, I didn't take into consideration the length between "want book" and "have book." I skipped ahead, but I'm so glad I did.

A Thread of Grace is the unsentimental saga of Italy's role during World War II, particularly its peek at the people's protection of Jewish Italians. With multiple characters and "threads of grace," the author kindly adds the names and monikers at the beginning of the novel. After picking it up and putting it down several times, I was especially happy to review this.

Russell's dedication to her story is demonstrated through her meticulous research, but it's her wonderful writing and character believability that makes this a book that should be required reading.

4.75 out of 5.0 Dark and Stormys.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

“Insane people are always sure that they are fine. It is only the sane people who are willing to admit that they are crazy.” - Nora Ephron

I am doing NaNoWriMo for the first time. I guess I felt that parenting, teaching 30 credits, sleeping, reading, conversing with people, and Effin' Ranching were not enough for me right now.

Crazy. Friggin' insane.

If you are crazy, too, look me up: KDRockstar. Yes, I know. I have it embroidered on my running shoes, too.

Friday, October 31, 2008

81. "Operation Shylock" - Philip Roth

To be blunt, I don't know what to do with Philip Roth.

He's self-effacing, he's charming, he's ego-centric, he's annoying. And that's just the author, Philip Roth.

In Operation Shylock, Philip Roth meets Philip Roth, a mirrored twin down to the part in his hair. The other Roth, called Moishe Popik ("Moses Bellybutton" - Jewish saying), wants to usher the Jews out of Israel and back to Europe, reversing the damage Hitler created during World War II.

Written as non-fiction but marketed as fiction (along with the standard, "any of this material in real life is coincidental"), Roth continues to state that it is actually non-fiction. He was there in Jerusalem, he was recruited by a Mossad operative, he wrote the book for them. Yet, Roth also states that he writes for the serious reader. I consider myself one of those, so I took the book with a tablespoon of salt and believe that Roth wrote this as part of a post-breakdown, post-Halcion addiction bender.

Should you read it? Again, I'm confused. Do you want to read 20 pages of ranting about the Holocaust? Then again, can you afford to miss a true education on the state of Jews (circa 1993, however)?

2.5 (split decision equals split in vote) out of 5.0 Great Pumpkin Patches.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

80. "Zipporah: Wife of Moses" - Marek Halter

I'll admit that my expectations were low. I bought this in the 99 cent bin (along with several other Jane Austen hardcovers - can you believe that?). She looks like a sassy vixen. If Fabio had been on the back cover, I wouldn't have been surprised.

However, I found myself engaged in the environment of Midian and sympathetic to Zipporah, a Cushite adopted by the leader, Jethro. The cover shows a woman with a summer tan, but the book describes a powerful, intense woman whose skin could not be seen at night. Moses, freshly sprung from Egypt and in hiding, loves her, but she refuses to marry him until he returns and frees his people.

I liked how the author gave depth to a character who has only been on the fringes of Biblical history, as well as his dedication to the details of the time. Still, it has been slipped out with other books for days, and I am having trouble remembering much more about it.

2.4 out of 5.0 Smashing Pumpkins.

Connect the dots: 79 to 80 (Moses led the Hebrews) to 81 (Operation Shylock - the next to read, where Moses is the "reverse nemesis" of Philip Roth), then to 82 (A Thread of Grace - how Italy helped the Jews during WWII), to 83 (a book about the Italian mafia). So, yes, I do need a bit of a plan, though I'm not sure where or if the dots will connect after that.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

“War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” ~ Ambrose Pierce

The White Tiger won the 2008 Man Booker Prize for fiction.

Meh. It was a decent read, so I'll clap the back of my hand like at a posh golf match.

Yet my vote still goes to A Case of Exploding Mangoes.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

79. "When We Were Bad" - Charlotte Mendelson

Perhaps the title should be: When We Were Naughty, Naughty Adults. Though "naughty" adds more spice where there is only blandness, like marzipan.

Four adult children of the famed rabbi, actress, broadcaster, and author, Claudia Rubin, will do anything to make mama happy. At their house, the term, "When mama ain't happy, nobody's happy," has a disturbing bend. For example, her husband, when finding out that his book will be published a mere two weeks after her book, keeps it a secret because he fears that Claudia has the power to shut down the presses.

Still, all children must rebel, and at the age of 33 (?) and 28, Frances and Leo (respectively) begin to rage against the mama machine. They are "bad" because they are choosing to live their own lives, rather than the one that Claudia has created for them. "With this family, you are for us or against us," she says. Well, okay, at least we know the stakes.

At turns desperately depressing and sardonic (at one point, the father sees one of those gloomy, cat-loving women that make him nervous, then realizes it's his daughter, Frances), the entire novel reaches for more than it can deliver. There are hints at outrageous past lives, mental illness, and incomplete characterization (the two youngest children - in their 20s - are considered artistic, so they are not expected to work, yet live at home, toking up and stealing checks). The experience left me saying, "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?" (WTF, for those of you who aren't exposed to college students and the latest lingo.)

2.0 out of 5.0 Gin Sours.


For my personal quest (connecting the dots), this was a tough one. I could re-read the Torah, but I do have a copy of a book about one of Moses's wives. "Along with God, it is the figure of Moses (Moshe) who dominates the Torah." Hey, I admitted that I might stretch things, didn't I? I just didn't admit that it may be thinner than the vein of an angel's wing.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

XX. "The Monk" - Matthew Lewis

Ah, the first book of the new reading boundaries, and I receive a "major fail," as my students would say.

Written in the late 1770s, this gothic romance has plenty of horror in it, but also a heap of melodrama. I took issue with the latter, and while I didn't throw the book, I did toss it aside.

Perhaps I'm just not ready to read it. This is a disappointment because there were a lot of "connect the dot" possibilities from this book. However, I am not a cheater, so I will simply XX this one off (for now - in a decade I'll have a year devoted to XX books).

Friday, October 03, 2008

“Setting a goal is not the main thing. It is deciding how you will go about achieving it and staying with that plan.” - Tom Landry

I've read 298 books since I began this blog in 2006, 150 of which were read that first year (I still have no idea how I did that). Each year, I've set a goal, and I usually achieve it.

After picking up Blood Meridian, I read five pages, then thought, "I know this story." Checked the archives - sure enough, I read it in 2006. I started Going After Cacciato. Same thing. I've read broadly and deeply and now it is time to make a change.

My experience with reading new authors has been invigorating, but often one of the books will reference something in the past that interests me and I have to ignore the impulse to explore deeper. After all, there are books in the "fridge" and on my desk and the library is calling to tell me more have come in. Now that my time is heart-wrenchingly limited, I've decided to bump up my 2009 goal to an early October start.

I'm going to play a game called connect-the-dots. Remember those pages from kindergarten? You could see what the figure would end up being (a sailboat or the letter B), but you still dragged your pencil from 1 to 2 to 3. If I read a book that references another book, I'm going to read that other book. If I read a book that is amazing, I'm going to go straight to the author's other titles. If my pencil hits the last number in the dot connection, I'll tell you and start from scratch.

You won't be able to see what I'm about to read because *I* don't know what I'm about to read. I just want to see how long I can stretch things out; for example, the Man Booker prize nominees. That was a fun ride.

This may drive me crazy. I love getting stacks of books from the library or knowing that I have something to clutch after turning the last page of another novel. But, in the same way, it's an adventure. The naked reader, stripped of all expectations other than the book in my hand and what it may whisper into my consciousness.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

78. "Shakespeare's Kitchen" - Lore Segal

This is art imitating life - real conversations, true to the ear reflections about others, and flawed characters. While shopped as a book of short stories about the same characters, it contains the arc of a dramatic moment without all of the answers and resolutions.

Ilka is the heroine of the majority of the stories. Asked to work for a Connecticut group ("think tank" comes to mind), she struggles to make friends and acquaintances among the best in writing and reading. She finds companionship with the Shakespeares who open their arms to bring her into the circle.

However, Ilka still retains her sense of amazement, of curiosity and honesty. She is a pain in the ass, a snoop, an exhausted mom, a brilliant scholar (though "what" she does is never told), and a sensualist. She would be my friend because I would love her questions.

A runner-up for the 2008 Pulitzer, this is a book to read if you are enamored by sparse description, but lovely, spare sentences that completely reveal a person's character.

3.75 out of 5.0 Bourbon Crushers.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

XX. "War Trash" and "Clear Light of Day"

I know that Clear Light of Day is one of Stefania's favorites, so it pains me to say that I had to put it aside... at least for now. I'm not sure if it's my mindset or the fact that I'm working and writing much more, but it's been hard to lose myself in a book lately.

So, I'm going to finish up with the books that I've already received from the library, then reevaluate. My super fantastic awesome reading plan for 2009 may get bumped up... or, I may just wait. NaNoWriMo is coming up (is that the right name... I'm blanking out), so I *know* I will be grading, teaching, and writing... with the help of River Rock's coffee and Diet Mountain Dew. Anyone else participating?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

"If it keeps up, man will atrophy all his limbs but the push-button finger." - Frank Lloyd Wright

The Kindle - the latest in e-book readers, but also the most user-friendly. Some say it is the iPod of reading. Without any computer source, a Kindle owner can download anywhere (in the U.S. - and not in portions of Montana and Alaska). There are more than 190,000 titles available.

Is this the future? I am a believer in the paperless society. Let's use computers to send mail, keep notes in class, learn through an online university (props to my own employer, South University). Let's bank online and buy online and meet online. Let's learn more about the world because we have 24/7 access to it.

But let's keep books. Let's keep libraries that allow anyone the opportunity to check out books about every topic imaginable... for free! Let's pile books on desks and in corners and use them to prop open the door when they aren't nestled beautifully on shelves and dressers and cabinets.

As I read the information about the Kindle, I'll admit that I was intrigued. I would love to click on a word and have a pop-up dictionary tell me its meaning. If I finished a book and needed another one, I could have it downloaded in one minute. As I age and find that I move my reading materials back and forth to find the crispest vision spot, I'd like to be able to increase the font size. And, out of courtesy to my children, I'd like to not be the reason why their backs are curved like the letter C when they bring my books to the car, loaded down like pack mules.

Still, I adore books. While others pencil in the margins, I believe that books are too sacred for our markings. I quit dog-earing pages when I noticed how much I hated it when others did it to books before me (was this an especially good page? what did I miss?). As I have often said on this blog, I love the smell of books, whether fresh from a local bookstore - the scent of new paper, which always reminds me of September and the beginning of school - or from the library, smoky, yellowed, mildewed or perfumed. And is there a more selfish, secret sound than the rustle made when turning a page?

77. "My Sister, My Love" - Joyce Carol Oates

According to 19-year-old Skylar Rampike, you may or may not want to know who killed his 6-year-old sister, Bliss. But he may or may not tell you, anyway.

In typical Oates fashion, the book presents a stereotypical mommy/daddy/son/daughter family with grins and Gap t-shirts and gregarious lifestyles. Of course, this hides the inner nastiness that fills the empty spaces like caulk. This book is particularly awful, reminding the reader of Jon Benet Ramsey from the first few pages.

Bliss is a skating wonder-kind, a girl who, it is predicted, will someday be an Olympian. She won her first crown at the age of 4, then became over-coached and over-mothered in an attempt to create the perfect life - special shoes, special tutors, and special medications. Skylar, medicated to the brim himself, watches from the sidelines with love - no jealousy! honest! let me repeat it! - and the desire to make his parents proud of him, too, even after Bliss is found murdered in their basement.

While the comparison to the Jon Benet Ramsey case is obvious (little girl made up to be a living doll), the ironic pinch is the knocks at today's society - cell phones, ADHD (and all of its partner psychological disorders), and kid-meds are all thrown under the bus. Still, it was an obvious Oates playing Skylar - the voice neither teenager nor child, just cruel and ambitious.

3.5 out of 5.0 Blue Skies.

76. "Purple Hibiscus" - Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie

Kambili and her brother, Jaja, live a pious life. Father, the wealthiest man in this Nigerian community, creates a daily schedule for sleeping, eating, communicating with family, and studying. She does not speak unless spoken to and follows all of the rules presented by her father and her father's church.

Then, she and Jaja get to stay with her aunt, Ifeoma, a lecturer at the university. Kambili sees student coups and learns to cook, then begins to learn to think separately from her father.

The first book by Adichie, this is a beautiful, lyrical novel about Nigerian culture. However, her more recent book, Half of a Yellow Sun, is so much fuller in its presentation. Still, if you can read both, do. I can't wait to see what else this author can bring to the world of literature.

4.0 out of 5.0 Purple Bikini Martini.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

75. "The Enchantress of Florence" - Salman Rushdie

Rushdie has said that this is his best work, as well as his most researched novel. While the Man Booker folks disagree, this was the first Salman Rushdie novel that didn't feel like a forced-for-schoolwork read.

If you have the patience for long-winded narrative and descriptions of several different names and historical events, you will enjoy this fantasy/fairy tale. From Queen Elizabeth I (the Virgin Queen) to the de Medici family (whom I'd recently researched), the story blends the magical with the impossible. To fully enjoy the novel, however, you need to have some basic idea of the history of the time period (early to mid 1500s).

Akbar the Great is the leader of the East, emperor of the Mughal empire. One day, a long-haired blond man wearing a multi-colored leather coat approaches Akbar's city. He says he has a story to tell the emperor, and eventually his tale of the enchantress of Florence endears the man (who goes by several aliases, so I'll call him Mugar dell'Amore) to not only the emperor but the entire town as they wish to know the empress so completely as to bring her to life through memories.

It's a playful side of Rushdie's writing that I've not seen. He writes less about politics and more about religion and sex, which I found refreshing. Catching the end of an NPR interview, I heard the host call this "a book of two cities." I disagree - it's a book of two cultures who end up being quite alike. A positive note on the cusp of the United States presidential election.

3.5 out of 5.0 Blue Motorcycles.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

2008 Man Booker Shortlist

If I were the self-centered wretch that many believe, I would think that the Man Booker shortlist judges read my blog, then chose the opposite. Bah. What I truly believe is that I need to try these other books... someday.

Aravind Adiga The White Tiger (Atlantic)
Sebastian Barry The Secret Scripture (Faber and Faber)
Amitav Ghosh Sea of Poppies (John Murray)
Linda Grant The Clothes on Their Backs (Virago)
Philip Hensher The Northern Clemency (Fourth Estate)
Steve Toltz A Fraction of the Whole (Hamish Hamilton)

I will take A Fraction of the Whole for $200. Others?

Sunday, September 07, 2008

74. "Before Green Gables" - Budge Wilson

Although not the original author of the famous "Anne of Green Gables" series (which I read until the pages were dog-eared and ripped), Budge Wilson tries to explain why Anne Shirley is the scrawny orphan with such big words when Matthew picks her up at the train station.

I raced through this book searching for that carrot-haired girl of my memory, and while I think the author did a decent job, it didn't have the flow and wonder of the original books. But is that reasonable to expect? Did anyone ever read Scarlett?

Some facts seem thrown in for effect; for example, a beloved teacher pulls out ipecac syrup and tells Anne how to administer it. Of course, we fans of Green Gables know that she saves Diana's sister with that knowledge. But there was no other reason to have that scene in the book at that time.

As much as I wanted it to, this didn't hit the spot, though I'm going to search through my old boxes to find my original collection (in 2009 when I have more time).

2.25 out of 5.0 Peachberry Shakes.

XX. "The Lost Dog"

I couldn't push myself into these choppy, short paragraphs long enough to care about the characters. It almost seemed like the writing style was purposeful in its attempt to alienate the reader.

If it makes the finals for the Booker, I may revisit. For now, meh.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

73. "Half of a Yellow Sun" - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I'm only 20 pages from the end of this book, but I don't want to read it. I don't want to leave this beautiful, strange, lush spiral of a world. Adichie has an enviable talent of turning rose petals into words. Just read it. Period.

4.9 out of 5.0 Freelancers.

72. "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" - Michael Chabon

First, this is no Kavalier and Clay. But, it is another unique turn for prolific writer, Michael Chabon.

A historical-alternative world-mystery-detective novel, it begins with the founder of the self-proclaimed Yiddish Policemen's Union, Meyer Landsman. Drunk and depressed, he is living his post-divorce life in a dump of a hotel in downtown Sitka, Alaska, a place where all of the (just pretend now, class) displaced Jews from WWII were, well, placed. Everyone speaks Yiddish, but some also speak "American."

The death of a heroin-addict/messiah/chess player in his hotel sparks Landsman into the murder mystery of his career, spinning him back into the clutches of a hipster ex-wife (now his boss).

The plot is difficult because of all the changes in history (there is a "Polish Free State" and the Soviets lost WWII), as well as several intertwining, impossibly connected families. There is a shocker of an ending, partly due to the red herring writing style of the detective genre.

Still, it's got fantastic, snappy dialogue, which is probably why the Coen brothers are already set to direct the movie. Personally, I think this is the second time in my life where I'll prefer the flick to the book.

2.0 out of 5.0 Holy Fucks.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” – Annie Dillard

Smart lady, that Annie Dillard. I liked spending my days reading books, sometimes finishing one per day. I liked being able to lose myself in these worn, old pages and inhaling what will always smell like peace to me - old glue, leather, faded cigarette smoke, and other people's houses... all captured on library book pages.

Until the beginning of December, I will be spending my days as a teacher. This was expected, and I'm very grateful. However, I overextended myself. Teaching 24-26 credits leads to mind fuzziness and alcoholism. Add my desire to finish my novel and you'll see that I am officially insane.

How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. I will not spend my life like this. It'll get easier because I'm going to make it easier for 2009. But, for now, I won't finish a book every few days, though I'll continue to post regularly... to avoid writing and grading, of course.

Meanwhile, the acorns are falling at the Effin' Ranch. The apples matured and ripened a month early. My parents are visiting, and a lot of the Dodge family will come enjoy our little slice of country zen. I have plans to see soul-friends throughout September. I'll cheer my son as he plays football, and I'll cheer my other son as he continues his own writing. The snow will come early, coating cragged fields and downed trees.

I am grateful.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

XX. "All We Ever Wanted Was Everything" - Janelle Brown

Well, this isn't a good sign... I quit reading the Man Booker finalists and despise the first book that I try (recommended by Bookslut).

Man leaves wife for her tennis partner via a nasty letter delivered by bicycle messenger. Daughter is branded a slut by school bathroom scribes. Other daughter is broke and belittled, trying to hide it all from uber-rich mama and papa.

I wish I could say this was simply boring, but since it didn't get be to sleep last night, I'd have to say it was just poorly written. Sorry, I'm cranky when I don't get my full eight hours.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

"In a good play, everyone is in the right." - Fredrich Hebbel

Perhaps this is true in fiction writing, as well. Or, perhaps giving the reader the sense of being right or fulfilled is the purpose.

Either way, I have enjoyed trying to tackle the long list of the Man Booker "Dozen." Since not all of the books were available through interlibrary loan - and I'm not big on buying books that I'm unsure of - I wasn't able to read all of them. Still, here are my nominations for the short list, in favorite order:

1. "A Case of Exploding Mangoes" - Mohammed Hanif (I'm betting this will win... or at least hoping it tops Rushdie).

2. "A Fraction of the Whole" - Steve Toltz

3. "The White Tiger" - Aravind Adiga

The "maybe":

"Netherland" - Joseph O'Neill

The "not this time, but you made the long list, so well played":

1. "Child 44" - Tom Rob Smith

2. "The Secret Scripture" - Sebastian Barry

I will be proved right or wrong on the short list on September 9; meanwhile, I've moved on in my reading to recommendations by other bloggers and will revisit the short list at a later date - after finishing my own writing, teaching, and parenting responsibilities (ha).

71. "A Fraction of the Whole" - Steve Toltz

This is the type of book that, like the Torah, you'd kiss the spine, then open to a random page for a quote to get you through the day. Toltz's first novel about the infamous (fictional) Australian Dean family is full of pessimism, hope, redemption, empathy, and appreciation. As Jasper Dean says about his father, he wished that he had told him that he liked him.

Jasper's uncle is the notorious dead criminal Terry Dean, a man whose infamy has outlasted his brother's patience. Jasper's father, Martin, refuses to talk about Terry other than a blistering all nighter that fills the first 200+ pages of this novel.

This was the best part of the book for me. Martin's wild ideas and blunt observations are a writer's goldmine... and a reader's joy. I loved every paragraph.

But, like many books, we know that Jasper is in jail and Martin is dead within the first chapter of the novel, so we have to get on with the story. Sometimes playing catch-up doesn't have the relaxing exuberance of thumbing through memories, which is why I found myself skimming after page 400-ish.

What an amazing accomplishment for Toltz. I would choose this as my number two for the 2008 Man Booker Prize.

4.0 out of 5.0 Kangaroos.

Monday, August 18, 2008

70. "The Secret Scripture" - Sebastian Barry

I adored A Long, Long Way; in fact, it was one of the first almost-TKAM books that I read for this blog. I still admire Barry's way with language - there are moments in The Secret Scripture that made me heart-hungry for such talent - but the overall landscape didn't work for me.

Old, old Roseanne is in the Sligo asylum, waiting for death or another day as a 100-year-old woman. She is not insane but uses the asylum literally. She writes her story and hides it under a loose floorboard. Meanwhile, Dr. Grene, the HBIC psychiatrist, must decide who is sane enough to return to society, as the asylum is being closed.

Funny thing is, as long as Roseanne has been there, Dr. Grene has not known her story or her reasons for being there. Funny thing is, the mice ate away at her records. Funny thing is, Dr. Grene is the most useless psychiatrist in the history of mankind, and his character flaws widen to impossibilities. Add a soap opera twist and *boom* - I've flung this novel against the wall.

Oh, Sebastian Barry, you are capable of so much more than just pretty words.

1.25 out of 5.0 Hot Irish Nut.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

69. "A Case of Exploding Mangoes" - Mohammed Hanif

I'm learning more about Pakistan culture and history through my dedication to reading mass quantities of books, but this novel is the first to drive me to purchase more in order to fully understand a nation's history. In this case, it is the mysterious death of Pakistan's president, General Zia, who led the nation from 1978-1988. This novel takes the credit for his death, as well as introducing a literary voice that is truly unforgettable.

Ali Shigri is the narrator of this story, a sarcastic, self-effacing silent drill leader at the Pakistani Air Force Academy. His father was murdered/committed suicide, and Shigri wants revenge, but he is smart enough to know how to play the rules with the military.

Switching back and forth between true history and wonderfully developed fiction, as well as the viewpoints from the president's wife to a crow, this book develops tension from the first chapter and holds it consistently throughout the novel. Who is plotting Zia's death? Who is out to get Shigri? We know how it ends, but how does it get to the end? Hanif does not disappoint - not with the plot, not with the characters, and certainly not with the entire work.

Here is my personal favorite and vote for the 2008 Man Booker Prize.

4.75 out of 5.0 Copper Camel Humps.

Monday, August 11, 2008

68. "Netherland" - Joseph O'Neill

A post-9/11 world, but this is not a 9/11 novel. Hans is a Dutch-British businessman who lives in New York City with his wife, Rachel. After 9/11, Rachel decides that she needs time out of the marriage and takes their child back to London.

So, what to do with all of his extra time? Hans pulls out his cricket bat and joins a Saturday team where he is "the only white man." Through cricket, Hans is introduced to Chuck Ramkissoon, a louder self-promoter than the Oxi-Clean guy. Chuck wants to bring cricket to the big stage in the U.S., believing that all Americans need to feel united is cricket.

The plot is set for a decent ride. So why didn't I love and adore this novel as so many others have? Because half of the time I felt annoyed. Hans, who is living in the Chelsea Hotel and flying back to see his son every other weekend, acts like the rich kid playing on the other side of the tracks for kicks. Similarly, Chuck seems to want to play a bad guy when he is the most interesting character in the book. I'm sure the author meant this to show depth in character, but without the right props, it lacks dimension and believability.

Perhaps this was why I ended up disliking most of the characters. Rachel seems to be cruel and uber-bitchy. Though we know from the beginning that Hans and Rachel get back together, there is no real reason for it. Hans has his moments, too, where it's unbelievable. Characters, like humans, have much more depth. This is severely missing.

While Hans's thoughts about politics, love, lust, sport, driving, and history are intriguing, every time he opens his mouth to speak, he seems to spit out marbles. It's the same with the other characters. The dialogue clunks and rattles along like an '88 Peugot.

Those annoyances aside, it is a thoughtful novel. I loved learning about cricket and wonder why more Americans are closed to it. I think that Netherland will make it to the Man Booker short list. Most importantly, I'm interested in reading other reactions to it.

2.75 out of 5.0 No Ideas.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

67. "Child 44" - Tom Rob Smith

This novel has been compared to John le Carre's, "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold." It's not nearly as intriguing, and much more mainstream than I expected from a Man Booker 2008 long lister.

Leo Stepanovich is working for the MGB in 1953 USSR. He has arrested more people than he can remember, and it isn't until a co-worker's son is killed - and Leo must force the family to believe it was an accident - that he begins to question the loyalties of those around him.

Demoted, depressed, he and his wife, Raisa, are sent to a small town. While there, Leo finds the body of another child. The case is similar to his co-worker's, and Leo begins to unravel the mystery of the killer.

Unlike most whodunits, it is obvious from the beginning of the story that the murderer is __________. The red herrings come from the trust and/or lack thereof that was built upon a Stalinist USSR.

While the historical aspect interested me, the overall feel of the book was average: average writing, average characterization, average content. It reads like a movie, and the author has already sold film rights to Ridley Scott. A perfect vacation or beach read, but not a book that should made the Man Booker short list.

3.25 out of 5.0 Russian Turkeys.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

66. "The White Tiger" - Aravind Adiga

"White men will be finished in my lifetime," says the lead character, Balram, a former driver of a wealthy "master" who writes a lengthy diatribe on the future of Indian business to the Chinese prime minister. With more outsourcing from the U.S., he may be right, but the main theme of the novel is not about business. It's about survival.

Balram escapes a miserable, poor existence in "dark" India (the area along the river) by becoming a chauffeur for Mr. Ashok, the son of a local businessman. Through his experiences, Balram discovers the truth about India that is never shown to outsiders, as well as how to survive the caste system.

Balram has a powerful voice, and you'll cringe while you laugh guiltily. Adiga has captured a unique tone and credible details that have made me wonder - yet again - if I really know anything about the world. Because of the timeliness and edginess of the material, it is no wonder that it made the Man Booker 2008 long list. However, the predictability of the plot detracted from the overall experience.

3.8 out of 5.0 East India Cocktails.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Man Booker Long List 2008

I will be putting my other reading on hold until I've read all of these. Is anyone familiar with the titles? I have a feeling that Salman Rushdie will make the short list - he always does.

The titles are:

Aravind Adiga The White Tiger
Gaynor Arnold Girl in a Blue Dress
Sebastian Barry The Secret Scripture
John Berger From A to X
Michelle de Kretser The Lost Dog
Amitav Ghosh Sea of Poppies
Linda Grant The Clothes on Their Backs
Mohammed Hanif A Case of Exploding Mangoes
Philip Hensher The Northern Clemency
Joseph O'Neill Netherland
Salman Rushdie The Enchantress of Florence
Tom Rob Smith Child 44
Steve Toltz A Fraction of the Whole

Monday, July 28, 2008

XX. "Water Music" - T.C. Boyle

I'm an incredible Boyle fan, so it disturbed me that I wanted to kick the book after reading twenty pages. Recently, I read about these gin vs. beer cartoons (beer was depicted as hearty and healthy, while gin showed depravity and murderous insanity - gin has always done that to me, too). Boyle used nearly all of the information word for word. It made me wonder if reading widely will eventually create frustration for the addicted reader.

65. "Duchessina" - Carolyn Meyer

It's the story... of a lovely lady. Or perhaps not. History has said that Caterina de Medici (Catherine, Queen Mother) was not a beauty, but she more than made up for it in ambition and wit.

After reading Courtesan, I was interested in hearing about the other side. When Catherine married Henri II, she tried her best to be the dutiful wife. Soon, she saw his blushes when looking at the black and white clad Diane de Poitiers.

Though the reading audience of Duchessina is late teens, there is plenty of good gossipy sex, including the fascinating tidbit that Catherine drilled a hole in the floor so she could find out why her husband was so fascinated with Diane.

I liked reading about the negative aspects of Diane because Courtesan made her a nearly flawless character. Catherine, however, is quite flawed, but the author created reasoning based on historical fact for Catherine's behavior. Very good for the historical reader who wants to be exposed to all aspects of the French court.

4.0 out of 5.0 French Summers.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

64. "Saturday" - Ian McEwan

I have a disturbing relationship with Ian McEwan's books. Atonement made me react to a book in a fashion I usually reserve for ex-lovers, with a pile of used tissues to match. But The Comfort of Strangers and On Chesil Beach completely underwhelmed me.

In Saturday, McEwan takes the ordinary life of a London neurosurgeon and applies one of my favorite what-if questions of all: what if you could save someone who hurt you/your family?

The question is planted broadly throughout the short novel with a backdrop of post-9/11 freedom-mongering and thoughtful political analysis. It seems to be a time for hope, a time for doing the right thing, though, as Dr. Perowne says, "We'll know if we did the right thing [involving the Iraq war] in five years." Published in 2003, I think I'm not amiss when I say that we still aren't sure about the right things.

As far as this book, it has the positive enthusiasm that is symbolized by the miasma of Obama supporters in America. Perhaps a book can exceed its expiration date. However, chunks of lead flew as spikes from my eyes as I read the last 30 pages. If this were McEwan's intention, he succeeded.

3.5 out of 5.0 Three Stripes Cocktail.

63. "Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name" - Vendela Vida

I had to read this (relatively) new novel for three silly reasons: she's married to Dave Eggers, she's got one hell of a cool name, and she rocked the title.

Clarissa is floating along the path of normality when her father dies of a heart attack. Soon, she finds he wasn't her biological father. Oh, and her mother just up and left her when she was 14 years old. So, Clarissa leaves her fiancee and travels to the Sami tribe to find her father. All the makings of a bad drama with dun-dun-dun in the music.

But Vida doesn't go that route. She creates unlikeable characters who make despicable choices, but writes with such heart and honesty that it's next to impossible to put the book out of your mind, even when you have to put it down.

Did I like it? I don't know. I'm still thinking about it, and to me, that's almost up there with sobbing and closing the book with a happy heart.

3.75 out of 5.0 Sam-Tinis.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

62. "The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall" - Christopher Hibbert

An incredibly descriptive non-fiction account of the (obviously) rise and fall of the Medici family in Italy is a superb introduction to the history and arts created by one man's greed. With hands in the pockets of religious leaders and government officials, the Medici family built a name based on banking, but soon solidified its place with its attention to the arts. The paintings, grottoes, and architecture of Florence still bear the name of Medici.

My darling friend, Becky, visited Italy during a whirlwind Europe tour, and her tales only intensified my desire to spend a month or two in Florence, with a few side trips. When she and I make our millions off our books, I'm sure I can convince her to make a return trip.

Until then, the photos and beautiful prose - luscious descriptions of the marketplaces, houses, meals... Hibbert is wonderfully dimensional - will satisfy my Italian dreams.

4.0 out of 5.0 Italian Valium.

“When the Goddess of Distraction calls, sometimes I’ve just got to pick up the phone.” – Marcia Menter

My wonderful writing group pals were talking about "the ultimate time-sucker" (Rachael), Facebook. I'll admit that I've wasted time checking out MySpace and Facebook, but have never really understood it. It's like text messaging... okay, but not fulfilling conversations with someone you supposedly care about. The whole "ask a friend" thing is weird, too. Ask if you can be my friend. I usually say yes. I'm like a hooker that way.

Still, I have succumbed. Stuck in bed with pneumonia (yes, I know, I'm "a medical nightmare" (my husband)), I'm bored. I've read, of course, but the magical nature of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a bit mind-bending with a 102 degree fever. I've played Bejeweled and topped by previous high score of 23,000. I've trolled Barnes and Noble.com for new books to add to my list, then considered ordering a Wii Fit to help me recuperate after this illness is cleared up. I've napped, I've rested, I've gulped down tons of juice.

Like the drunk-dialing of early college mornings, I've hit a tang of desperation. Facebook. Fill me up. And it did.

So, if you receive an invitation, please be my friend. And if you know how to make it look pretty, please let me know, too. Because I'll be getting bored again soon.

Monday, July 14, 2008

61. "Independence Day" - Richard Ford

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Independence Day is an intensely detailed novel that covers four days in the life of realtor Frank Bascombe. If you are a fan of Ford, you've met Bascombe before in the book, The Sportswriter.

Bascombe is a 44-year-old optimist with multiple dates - one with potential buyers, another with his maybe-more "lady friend," and a weekender with his psychologically unbalanced son. The tale weaves in and out of everyday American life, interrupting the dialogue with beautiful descriptions. Everyone in this book seems real, which is why I can excuse this 500-page-plus monster from being an ode to a writer's favorite character.

I will admit to being disappointed with the last 50 pages or so. The whole "show a gun in the first act, fire it in the third act" rule isn't followed, so I had different expectations of the end. I'm intrigued enough to try other Ford books, though, based on the meticulous detail and perfect pitch dialogue.

4.0 out of 5.0 Star Spangled Banners.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

60. "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" - Junot Diaz

If you:

A. Speak mediocre Spanish
B. Know The Lord of the Ring trilogy in a Biblical sense
C. Remember crazy ass pop trivia...

then you will love this book.

Oscar "Wao" de Leon is not the typical Dominican "cat" (as the narrator puts it). He's fat, he's geeky, and he wants to become the Dominican Tolkien. Basically, he has no game.

He, his sister, Lola, and mother have had horrific things happen to their lives, which is blamed on the Dominican curse of fuku (accent on the last u) and the power of dictator Trujillo. All of this is told through a series of fun references (for example, someone pulls a Dana Plato robbery - which is hilarious if you remember this bit of silly trivia) and jock strap wielding, chest thumping, ball grabbing masculine cock-strut.

Winner of the 2007 Pulitzer, this is one that cannot be missed.

4.2 out of 5.0 Caribbean Punches.

59. "DeNiro's Game" - Rawi Hage

Bassam, the young narrator of DeNiro's Game, is searching for a way out of war-torn Beirut. His friend, George, offers assistance, but it is through joining the local militia.

There are good war stories and mediocre war stories. Unfortunately, I felt like this novel fit into the latter category. I enjoyed learning more about the Lebanese Civil War, but the conflict between Bassam and George was predictably depressing. Toward the end of the novel, I began to count how many times the author described Bassam smoking. I got to 16 before I gave up.

Other people have adored this book, so judge for yourself.

2.0 out of 5.0 Lulus.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

58. "PopCo" - Scarlett Thomas

This book has been raved about at the Bookslut site, and we typically share the same taste in quirky novels. While my first experience with Scarlett Thomas didn't go well, PopCo intrigued me enough to push me through.

Alice Butler is a practically orphaned girl who grew up with her mathematically-inclined, code-cracking grandparents. A special code is imprinted on a locket that she still wears, years later, as a 30-odd-year-old idea-creator for PopCo, a leading toy manufacturer.

Alice is selected to be part of the elite team at PopCo that is creating the next big thing in the teenage girl market. If you have been stuck in the academic world for the majority of your life, you won't appreciate this novel. Personally, as a former PR goody two-shoes and marketing guru, I loved this fresh take on the manipulation of minds.

Frankly, I think Thomas should have taken all of her research and gone on the road, shelling out marketing seminars for thousands of dollars a PopCo (ouch, that pun hurt). With a husband who teaches marketing, along with my own experience, I knew a lot of the examples that she gave, so I didn't enjoy that as much as others would. However, the mind-fizzing work of mathematics twisted the story enough to keep it interesting without overwhelming me into flashbacks of my hippie algebra teacher slamming his hand on my desk and shouting, "Are you an acid trip?"

The end disappointed me, but the ride was fun. I think I'm done with Scarlett Thomas novels, though, because in the end, each seems a bit preachy.

3.0 out of 5.0 Astro Pops.

Monday, June 30, 2008

57. "Ghostwritten" - David Mitchell

David Mitchell wrote my recent favorite, Black Swan Green. Like that novel, Ghostwritten takes several short stories and connects them. While BSG followed the story of one boy, Ghost follows the spirits of many who are threaded by the simple act of briefly meeting or even haunting.

I will admit that I was disappointed, especially because I had high expectations after BSG (and its accompanying band of "read Ghostwritten blurbs on the back cover). The first four stories were engaging and interesting, but then the excitement slackened and my interest plummeted. It was no longer fresh writing with newly created verbs (love that, by the way). It was a story for story's sake - because there needed to be a connection rather than there already was.

I'm woozy, so this review may not make sense, so I'll simplify: read Black Swan Green for the same technique but with better style.

1.9 out of 5.0 Crump Crushers.

XX. "The Conservationist" - Nadine Gordimer

Perhaps I'm glum or perhaps I'm feeling dried up, but my eyes would slide shut after each page. I've gotten more naps in the past two days than in a month.

I won't blame the writing because it's beautiful in its spare simplicity. I can't blame the plot because it seemed interesting, and the characters can't be blamed because I just didn't get far enough to know them.

So I'll blame the nasty fever my son gave me and put this back on the to-be-read-at-a-later-date stand.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

"Fall seven times, get up eight." - Chinese proverb

I always wanted to be a ballerina. As a child I took a class, dipping down like one of those wooden water birds that sip from a plate. I also took gymnastics, but quit after falling off the balance beam in such a way that I'm surprised I ever peed again.

I am not graceful. No matter how many yoga classes or tree poses or dances to "The Nutcracker Suite," I am pigeon-toed and off-kilter.

Which is how I found myself on the carpet last month, my cheek pressed into its fibers, my legs tangled in the dog gate. It was the first time in years where I've been so injured that I burst into tears. Way to go, graceful.

A month later and I'm still gimping along. Fortunately, I didn't tear a tendon (as originally thought) or need surgery (as originally proclaimed). I've gotten a lot of reading done while sitting in waiting rooms. Something called "rehabilitation" has entered my vocabulary, as well as "miniscus" and "effusion."

Recovering from a major injury is like heartache - you think you can rush out there and do things as before, but you find yourself inept or curled into a comma on the floor. My knee likes to trick me on the stairs and let go of its job as leg-holder-upper, spilling me thunk-a-thunk down the steps. It is a fine balance between relearning how to live and hoping things will stay the same, silver memories of running along a tire rut, a concrete-filled chest heavy with want.


It interests me that two of the Best of the Man Booker "contestants" are stories about South Africa. I wonder how these books were chosen as "the best."

I still need to read The Conservationist, but it has to be pretty magnificent to beat Oscar and Lucinda. Your votes?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

56. "Disgrace" - J.M. Coetzee

Ha-ha-ha... this shall be fun. First, Mr. Coetzee seems to "claim to be considered one of the best novelists alive" (The Sunday Times). Muah-ha-ha. Second, Mr. Coetzee wrote a book about a professor banging a student, which, as one of my own professors said during "Introduction to Prose," is one of the most overrated, autobiographical, boring subjects imaginable, yet is attempted by nearly every M.F.A. graduate student and/or English prof.

And he didn't write it well.

Disgrace is not about a man's fall. It's about a self-indulgent, pseudo-intellectual (autobiographical here? I shan't guess) professor who makes the mistake of keeping his sex and his scores separate. He screws the student, then expects her to make up a test. Rather than apologize or grovel, he walks away from his job.

Based in South Africa, there are plenty of gender and racial equality issues that have the potential for thoughtful analysis. I couldn't find it with my lenses in and a magnifying glass. If anything, I became more annoyed with the creator of characters who are so banal and misguided that I truly wondered where he lived. I have read good literature about the troubles in South Africa. Coetzee overreached and tried to write good literature about human beings, and that's where he failed.

.75 out of 5.0 Aggravations.

55. "The Ghost Road" - Pat Barker

Winner of the 1995 Man Booker Prize, The Ghost Road completes a trilogy. I'm not sure if being unaware of the first two books affects my experience, but there did seem to be something missing.

The beginning of the book is about Billy Prior, a soldier in World War I and patient in a mental institution for shellshock; his doctor, William Rivers, is a kind, pattering man who seems to truly care for his wards. Good descriptions, quirky details, then... whuuut?

There is a right turn at Albuquerque (not literally... sheesh) and suddenly - journal entries. Memories. Passive writing. As one of the sorry soldiers may have said, "This is not what I signed up for."

As always, I can *understand* why a book was chosen for an award or prize; however, this particular novel doesn't appeal to me personally. Could have. Would have. Didn't.

1.5 out of 5.0 Gazoombas.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Best of the Booker

I encourage you all to expand your reading lists, as well as participate in the Best of the Booker award contest. I've read a couple of the examples, but to feel fully able to cast my ballot, I've moved these books to the top of my bedside stack:

Pat Barker's The Ghost Road
JM Coetzee's Disgrace
Nadine Gordimer's The Conservationist

Very different books... what's your pick?

54. "The End of Mr. Y" - Scarlett Thomas

I've heard amazing things about PopCo, this author's other book; however, I received this one first, so I plowed right in.

And immediately felt the waters close over my head.

I'd mark this as an XX book because I'm quitting it. However, I made it over halfway, so part of me feels like I've earned the mark.

The premise is entrancing: a book that is cursed. Anyone who reads it is found dead soon afterward. Ariel is doing her doctorate thesis on this book when her faculty advisor disappears.

Then it gets science fiction-y and biological with quarks and existentiell (really, look it up), and this summer-floaty brain just imploded.

"I've never forgotten what I've read of Being in Time, although not finishing it is one of the big regrets of my life" (The End of Mr. Y). I may feel the same way eventually, but not yet.