Thursday, January 31, 2008

14. "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" - Muriel Spark

This is the book that I wish I had written.

Miss Brodie is the unbalanced teacher, leading the students to lessons outside of those found in texts, telling of lovers and romances and politics. She favors a select group of girls, forever after known as Brodie's girls, whom she keeps close to her even after they pass through her class as 11-year-olds.

The switches in narrative from Sandy's fantasies (her imaginary police woman friend, how she'd speak if she were a middle aged woman in a marital argument) to Miss Brodie's quirky dialogue to amazing descriptions... it is genius.

My friend, MH, mentioned that perhaps the 1001 books wasn't the best way for me to proceed this year since I have not had any favorable reviews thus far. Timing is everything... we have the first almost-TKAM (To Kill a Mockingbird) for the year.

4.95 out of 5.0 Dirty Scotsmen.

13. "The Man Nobody Knows" - Bruce Barton

"[Jesus] believed that the way to get faith out of men is to show that you have faith in them; and from that great principle of executive management he never wavered."

Published in 1924, Barton, a successful executive manager, writes a novel to prove that Jesus was the first businessman who "built the greatest organization of all." Using anecdotes from Thomas Paine to Aristotle - and combing through the Bible - Barton succeeded in convincing me.

I cannot remember who recommended this book... but thank you.

3.25 out of 5.0 Purple Jesuses.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

12. "Slow Man" - J.M. Coetzee

An Australian photographer/photo biographer gets into an accident, his bicycle versus a truck. Paul Rayment loses most of his leg and needs help at home as he rehabilitates.

His nurse is so kind that he, of course, falls in a strange dependent love with her, which is not accepted.

Then it gets weird.

A character from a former Coetzee novel, Elizabeth Costello, shows up at Paul's door. She knows his thoughts, his dreams, and his desires. She tries to manipulate his future via long-winded monologues. Toward the end, as she coughs from pneumonia, she still does not run out of nonsense.

If this had been a book about loss - of the leg, of movement, of love, of youth - I'd like it. In fact, I liked the first 40 pages. But this Costello character took this book into crazy territory.

Perhaps if I had read Elizabeth Costello I would understand the joke or the moral. My hunch is that this is written without a point purposely, but it proves that not everyone can be Kafka.

1.5 out of 5.0 Bootlegs.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

11. "The Other Boleyn Girl" - Philippa Gregory

Gregory is known for her historical romances, so I was a bit worried about bodice-ripping, etc. in this novel (as if I should criticize, considering there are similar scenes in my first book).

Instead, I found a deeply researched book with wonderful dialogue and practiced tension, even though most of us know what happens to Anne Boleyn.

Mary, "the other Boleyn girl," is set up by her family to seduce King Henry, which she does successfully, even giving birth to two children. However, she loses favor with the king, who in turn is interested in her sister, Anne.

The descriptions of court behavior and sneaky family politics kept me flipping the pages. I intended to read it in order to see the film (Eric Bana... yum), but I ended up loving the fast-paced adventure of this 650+ page novel.

4.0 out of 5.0 Dead on Arrivals.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

9. & 10. "The Horse and His Boy" and "Prince Caspian"

by C.S. Lewis.

My son, who is an avid writer of gory mythological stories (yes, he's written more pages than I have, and he's illustrated them, as well), asked me if C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien ever battled it out over their respective pieces of work. I had never considered that, and together we found that both writers were in the same writing group. Talking trees indeed!

In the Narnia series, The Horse and His Boy can easily be overlooked. It tells about the reigns of King Edmund and Queens Susan and Lucy, but it feels like Lewis wrote it simply to make sure readers knew they had powerful adventures in Narnia before slipping back into the wardrobe.

Which brings us to Prince Caspian. I had to read this since the movie comes out in May, and I'm sure to have a 9-year-old dragging me to the theater... not too difficult - have you seen the actor who plays Prince Caspian?

The four royalty are back in England, but Prince Caspian, fighting for the throne of Narnia, calls them back to help him. You can imagine the rest, but it's still a charming read. And for those of you who missed the Christianity symbolism in the LWaW, it is plastered all over this one.

The Horse and His Boy - 1.25 out of 5.0 Bay Horses.

Prince Caspian - 3.0 out of 5.0 Non-Alcoholic Wassails.

8. "Ethan Frome" - Edith Wharton

As I read this slender volume, I thought of all the 1910s women who did the same, perhaps crowding around fireplaces or parlor furniture and reading aloud.

It is a book that is meant to be read aloud to a group, to be shocked and feign adoration or disapproval or empathy. Or, if you agree with Anita Shreve, it is a book to admire forever. However, I felt it was overdramatic and suspended belief, though I would have adored it in 1912, sewing my sampler and squinting against the oil lamp.

2.0 out of 5.0 Old-Fashioneds.

"There is a parallel universe so close to ours that the only difference is that a blade of grass bends to the right not the left."

From, a website about time travel. Yes, they are serious.

In my parallel universe, I would find a river of motivation and drink from it often.

Writing is sucking right now. Reading is going well. Teaching rocks Jonas.

Friday, January 18, 2008

7. "The Comfort of Strangers" - Ian McEwan

A hefty review could exceed the word count of this novella, so I'll keep it short.

Colin and Mary are in a committed relationship, sometimes too close. While vacationing in an unnamed European city, they meet a strange local couple. Strange equals bad/evil.

Written in 1981, this could be the precursor to internet myths and hoaxes. "Don't vacation in XX or XX will happen to you."

From the first pages, I didn't feel invested in the characters, but it was short enough to finish without feeling cheated. It's thrust into the category of "meh."

1.75 out of 5.0 Sex on the Sacandagas.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

6. "The Devil and Miss Prym" - Paulo Coelho

"The devil when down to Georgia, he was lookin' for a soul to steal..."

This song popped in my head upon reading the back cover of this slim volume (or perhaps it was "Guitar Hero" playing in the background). In this case, the devil went down with a stranger to the small village of Vizcos. He tempts Miss Prym with a task straight out of the "What If?" book with the purpose of answering his own question, "If good and evil are pitted against each other, does good have a chance?"

He creates an impossibly difficult scenario involving murder and money. But does Miss Prym switch to the dark side?

This read like a series of Aesop's fables or folktale, though not as preachy. It simply charmed me.

3.25 out of 5.0 Black Devils.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

5. "An Underground Education" - Richard Zacks

Similar to Lies Your Teacher Told You, this book attempts to nail down some truths and shatter misconceptions. Nothing is sacred; the author grapples with politics, sex, history, medicine, etc.

The book came out before the internet was running at the current breakneck speed, so there are some references to rumors formally whispered around the water cooler (Catherine the Great and the horse, losing a kidney after drunken night, etc.). But there is enough left - and some gruesome/crazy/hysteria-inducing photos - to give it a flip-through.

2.5 out of 5.0 King's Cups.

4. "them" - Joyce Carol Oates

While it appears capitalized in this depiction of the cover, from what I've read by the author, it should be all lower-case letters: them.

This immediately thrusts the reader into choosing a side, them or us. The novel is about a brother (Jules) and sister (Maureen) who are struggling to become better versions of themselves while living in poverty-stricken Detroit in the 1950s and 60s. From childhood to the Detroit riots, we watch as they make heinous judgments and inane choices... prompting us to think of the characters as "them."

Meanwhile, the characters have their own issues with "them" - whom they consider the "Negroes, Jews, Irish, and spics." Or, in relationships, the siblings consider others "them" - always wanting more, always loving too much or not enough.

The editor in me thinks it's about 150 pages too long; the writer in me marvels at how she "gets away with" using words repetitively, yet I'm soothed by that written melody.

I was briefly thrown out of the novel's rhythm when Maureen writes a letter to an English professor named Joyce Carol Oates. Whuut? At the time (this was originally published in 1969), due to this nugget and a foreward that refers to the whereabouts of Maureen, many thought this was a nonfictional book. Not true, as Oates clarifies in the 2006 edition.

3.75 out of 5.0 Detroits.

Friday, January 11, 2008

"Reading this book is like waiting for the first shoe to drop." - Ralph Novak

I'm currently going through training to teach online for a university based out of Georgia. It's the first time in years where I've been in a class with non-English majors. In the efforts to get to know each other, I've learned about:

  • A small cult in Mexico where holes in the teeth are a sign of clarity (from an anthropologist)
  • Shortening multiplication problems in your head is easy... for other people (from a mathematician)
  • Police officers' pension plans and how many can retire exceptionally early (from a criminal lawyer).
I wondered what the meaning of the song, "All Along the Watchtower" meant. And I immediately got this response. There are so many unique people out there.

Which brings me to - mail bag goodness!

Happy New Year! You have got to read a Japanese short story book called Monkey Brain Sushi.

Hmm, I couldn't find it online. Anyone else hear of this?

Another year of you pretending to be a critic. What makes you think that anyone cares?

First, I am not a critic, though I may criticize. This blog is meant to convey my thoughts about my current reading material. No one posts my comments on the back of their novels, though I do get a grateful email from an author from time to time. Whether I'm getting 400 views a day or 400,000 (and it's somewhere in the middle), I will continue to add to the blog to show that I've done something substantial... the year of 150 books. Read on...

I love your blog, but I miss the pressure of you reading a large number of books in a short amount of time. Any plans to do this in the future?

I'm considering a book a day for 2009. I would have to go on sabbatical and take out a third mortgage and pretend I don't have children, though.

Change your photo. It's been the same one for 2 yrs.
You promised a new photo in your about me section.
New photo. Nudity preferred.

Sickos. I look two years older and wiser, and much more zen instead of moody. Use your imaginations.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

XX. "The Book of Illusions" - Paul Auster

Made it to page 84 before becoming annoyed with the author's reference to "brilliant writing" - his own made-up biography.

David Zimmer's family dies in a plane crash; he becomes a walking dead man, convenient because he translates a French author's book as Memoirs of a Dead Man.

Perhaps it gets better, but I'd rather push forward.

Monday, January 07, 2008

3. "The Journal of Dora Damage" - Belinda Starling

"London, 1860. Dora Damage illicitly takes over her ailing husband's bookbinding business, only to find herself lured into binding expensive volumes of pornography commissioned by aristocratic rou├ęs. Her indefatigable spirit carries her so far through this rude awakening, but when a mysterious fugitive slave arrives at her door to whom she is duty-bound to offer an apprenticeship, she realises she has become entangled in a web of sex, money, deceit and the law, which only grips tighter the more she struggles against it.

"The Journal of Dora Damage whips up a vision of London when it was the largest city in the world, swamped by the filth produced by a swollen population; its sweat, stench and misery are both the details and the bigger issues of the book. Against a backdrop of power and politics, work and idleness, conservatism and abolitionism, it explores the many 'binds' operative at all levels of society - the restrictions of gender, class and race, and the ties of family and love - and examines the price at which freedom can be obtained by the transgression or acceptance of society's rules and taboos." - from her website.

Sometimes it takes extensive circumstances to get me to read a certain book - in this case, it was the author's premature death after complications from surgery. She lingered long enough to know the book would be published. What frustration, what heartbreak. And, considering the other themes of the book, how health "binds" us to the bleakness society offers. Overall, a worthy mystery with polished details created from well-rubbed historical sources.

3.0 out of 5.0 Victories.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

2. "The Red Queen" - Margaret Drabble

The crown princess of Korea is 200 years dead by the time her diaries are read by Dr. Barbara (Babs) Halliwell. Still, through death, the princess holds power and influences Dr. Halliwell to examine her life deeply when traveling to Seoul for a conference.

The first part of the book is the princess's memoir, fictionalized, of course, but based on true events. The story would have been captivating if not for the repeated attempts to stretch out the suspense by stating, "But I shall not speak of that now."

Compared to the second part of the book, though, this is magical writing. During the second half, the ghosts of the princess (yes, that is meant to be plural) use wily ways - and the internet - to push her story on Dr. Halliwell. There are some similarities in their lives, but not enough to deem interesting and definitely not intriguing enough to find literary merit through parallelism.

When reading two or three part books, there is a similarity of voice or style that links the stories. In this case, there is neither, and each section stands alone, the similarities seeming awkward and without purpose.

However, when Drabble inserted herself into the novel, I blew past annoyance to disgust on my emotional meter. Self-described as a tragicomedy, I found nothing humorous to merit that description, and the greatest tragedy is that someone will force this book upon someone else as an example of greatness. Bah, humbug.

1.5 out of 5.0 Kickin' Chickens.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

1. "The Boys in the Trees" - Mary Swan

You will hear about this book in 2008.

First, it has the personal stamp of approval by Alice Munro, who says, "This is a mesmerizing novel, that can truly claim to be filled with a 'terrible beauty.'"

Second, it is the type of novel that literary awards are made to support, a prose poem on an epic scale that plays with format and style.

'So, Dodge,' you might be saying, 'what the hell does that mean?'

The Boys in the Trees is like a dartboard; the bulls-eye is the shocking murder of a family in a small town during the early 1880s. Like ripples after the stone's throw, each chapter wavers between responding to the tragedy and telling the story of a new character. Swan succeeds in writing elegant prose, but some may find the mysterious style of introducing characters to the surrounding plot cumbersome, or worse, annoying.

This is a teaching book, a style manual, a lesson in literature. All good qualities. But for a meal, it didn't satisfy this reader.

2.75 out of 5.0 Gin Things.