Tuesday, February 26, 2008

21. "Pompeii" - Robert Harris

As a kid, I had a creepy fascination with nature and death. I devoured books about the Hindenberg and received special permission from my fourth grade teacher to look at the book with the figures of frozen Pompeiians in their death throes.

My pyromanic phase has never ended; I just get to burn stuff at the Effin' Ranch now. And read books about to be made into movies if not for the (former) writers' strike.

Pompeii tells the story of Mount Vesuvius's eruption in 79 A.D. through the eyes of a Roman aquarius named Attilius (fictional character) and "Pliny" (real Roman historical figure). As horrific as I had always imagined this event, Harris reaches deeper and creates a tense background.

However, the fight between Attilius and a former slave-to-master is a poor attempt at diverting the reader's attention before the fireworks occur, as well as add a lackluster love affair.

Meh. It was readable. However, I am much more interested in Pliny's story now.

2.5 out of 5.0 Volcano Lava.

20. "Widow of the South" - Robert Hicks

Typically, I don't check other reviews before creating my own, but this time, while Googling for more information, I read this at Amazon:

"Before the battle begins, Carrie's house is commandeered for a field hospital and all normal life is suspended. Carrie is anything but normal, however. She has buried three children, has two living children she pays little attention to, has turned the running of the house over to her slave, Mariah, and spends her time dressed in black walking around in the dark or lying down lamenting her loss.

She is a morbid figure from the outset but becomes less so as the novel progresses. The death going on all around her shakes her out of her torpor, but death is definitely her comfort zone.

One of the soldiers who is treated at the house is Zachariah Cashwell, who loses his leg when Carrie sends him to surgery rather than watch him die. They are inextricably bound in some kind of a spiritual dance from then on. Their reasons for being drawn to each other are inexplicable, apparently, because they remain unexplained, and when Cashwell tells Carrie he loves her, she beats him nearly to death because she loves him too. At least, that is the reason Hicks gives. He violates that first caveat given to all writers: "show us, don't tell us."

There is doubtless something deeply flawed in Carrie and screamingly symbolic about her behavior; it is surely elusive. Too bad, because Carrie was a real person whom Hicks lauds for her compassion and ability to grieve without end. Then, he throws in this gratuitous "love story" and confuses the issue. Carrie's relationship with her husband and children remains unexamined. Hicks is better at describing death and "the stink of war" than he is at life. If you read War and Peace and loved all the war parts and were bored senseless by the peace parts, this is your cup of tea." --Valerie Ryan

and I couldn't have put it better. Thanks, Valerie.

2.25 out of 5.0 Pieces of Ass.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

19. "Katherine" - Anya Seton

The issue with historical novels is where does history exit stage right and fiction enter? I'm sure this curiosity will cause me to indulge in some Wikipedia searches and nonfiction urges (cheesy rhyme... my apologies).

In Katherine, the author explores 14th century England and the love affair between Katherine Swynford and John of Gault, Duke of Lancaster. With the backdrop of the plague, mobs, and the great peasants' revolt of 1381, there is as much attention to historical details as to the life of the court, which becomes a bit repetitive after two or three novels.

I've read that Katherine, published in 1954, is the mother of all modern historical romances. Perhaps, but it was the play between the character's role as commoner and royalty that fascinated me. Brilliantly researched.

4.5 out of 5.0 Wassail.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

"History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon." - Napolean Bonaparte

More than a month ago, I proclaimed, "For 2008, I will read at least 60 books from the 1001 books 'you should read before you die' list."

Then I proceeded to read the books. Out of eleven, I adored one, liked two, suffered through seven, and dismissed one. If something doesn't seem to be working for me, I never stick with it, whether it's a job, a relationship, or a commitment to a reading list.

Therefore, after much thought and many eerie coincidences, this will be the year of historical literature. The Historical Novel Society's definition of this is novels written at least 50 years after the events described or novels written by people approaching the subject only via research. Some books may even appear to be historical fantasy or alternative history, similar to Dan Simmons' The Terror.

Some of the books will overlap with the list of 1001 books you should read before you die. Most will not. It's considered its own genre (obviously, since it has its own society). Perhaps in the future I will decide to read strictly absurdist fiction or penny dreadfuls. Who knows?

In addition, I have sideline "lifelong learning" books - tomes of knowledge best nibbled, like The Art of War and Meditations.

So, officially, for 2008 I will read historical fiction in all its shapes and guises, as well as several "lifelong learning" books and a few chosen modern reviews - adding up to a minimum of 100 books for the year.

One of these days I swear I'll jump off the crazy train and commit to reading 365 books...

Friday, February 15, 2008

18. "Breakfast at Tiffany's" - Truman Capote

Oh, Holly Golightly. Why did I remember your character for years?

Simple - the snickety snappy dialogue. She says what others do not expect. But why-oh-why did the book have to be such a downer? I did not recall that aspect.

100 pages of lovely language. Sigh.

4.25 out of 5.0 Happy Os.

XX. "Blood Moon" - A.W. Gryphon

You need an editor, pronto. There is so much possible with this book; it frustrated me to see a plot destroyed by language.

If you'd like help, feel free to email me. Otherwise, good luck.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

17. "The Ground Beneath Her Feet" - Salman Rushdie

I'm shallow. I think of two things when it comes to Salman Rushdie; first, there was a call for his execution, second, he was married to that young hottie from Top Chef. I find the latter to be most amazing.

In this novel, Rushdie again takes something original and changes it to suit his imagination. In this case, it is the history of rock and roll. Ormus Cama is a cross between Elvis Presley and John Lennon (Yoko could sue!), while Vina Aspera is, later in the story, a mix of Pat Benatar and Britney Spears.

Originally based on the original myth of Orpheus, it feels like Rushdie stumbles a bit over his own witticism to the point of being aggravating. The mix of "East meets West" no longer seems fresh, especially when the characters are taken out to be paraded around as the brilliant rock giants they claim to be.

I should have loved this book, but the self-centered attitude of the author clung to me. It wasn't until later that I read the death of Vina occurred he same date the fatwa against Rushdie was released. Authors, for the love of Mike, stay out of your own stories. You are not that interesting, which is why you write fiction.

1.75 out of 5.0 Festering Boils.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

"Dreams come true. Without that possibility, nature would not incite us to have them." - John Updike

I've caught the kid-crud. Thing 1 (eldest mutant) has missed several days of school. I wanted to give him a stained old plastic bowl to take to class and use between pre-algebra and European history.

Yet it is hard to push-push-push when you know that the electric blanket is retaining the night's heat (and dreams... and sleep). So I slipped back between the sheets - then promptly puked on the bed. Listen to your intuitions, folks.

I've been writing a lot. I am always amazed by the process (and how everyone's process is unique), but this time feels more spiritual and true. At the end of a writing binge, I read the words and know they will be shared with others. Perhaps it is my natural tendency of cockiness, maybe I suffer from illusions of grandeur. I believe that, after reading hundreds of books, I have a natural ability to know what makes fiction work.

Thus, I haven't been reading as much, so a dip into the mailbag is in order:

I sent you my novel/Why didn't you review my book/Did you get my book?

I'm receiving about 20 requests per month (I *know*! Whodathunkit?) I am choosy about my reading material; after all, it replaces American Idol, Dances with the Stars, and 24. If I received your book and did not write a review, it is because I disliked it. Rather than hurt new writers with crappy reviews, I stay silent. Also, I rarely review those authors whom I know. I'd rather have friends than this blog.

If you could choose an author to sit down with for lunch, who would it be?

Oh, you horrid trappers. For good looks, as well as great writing, I would choose Carl Hiaasen or John Irving. For strictly knowledge, I'm stuck. Suggestions?

I'm 13 and want to be a writer someday. What would you recomend?

First, practice. Practice spelling - "recomend" is spelled "recommend," but your editor will help with that. Write short stories, write descriptions about people, sit and watch behavior and write it down. You are fairly young for the Dinner twist of this blog, but inhale books for breakfast. Read as much as you can. From high school until college, gorge yourself. And *never* let someone tell you that this person or that person is not an author. If you like him or her, figure out what you like. Stick to your guns. More advice for you in 7 years.

Monday, February 04, 2008

16. "Sabbath's Theater" - Philip Roth

Mickey Sabbath is a 60-something unemployed puppeteer with an implied sexual addiction. After the death of his mistress, he begins to think that suicide is the best ending for a life filled with failure.

I've had my issues with Roth - mostly regarding his alter-ego Zuckerman - but this National Book Award-winner could make me a fan.

Roth's method of writing backward, telling the whole story in the first chapter, then getting into the details later, reminds me of Salman Rushdie, but the free-wheeling recall of minute details is the work of a master. And what details. It's makes a mockery of most writers' creative work.

4.0 out of 5.0 Hot Fudge Sundaes.

Friday, February 01, 2008

15. "The Bondwoman's Narrative" - Hannah Crafts

Henry Louis Gates Jr. bid on a book at auction, a leatherbound journal by Hannah Crafts, an admitted female slave who escaped to a free state. He believes this is the earliest writing of a former slave and submits its contents as "a novel" to the public.

I don't believe in calling it a novel... it is one woman's autobiography. I would call it creative nonfiction. Gates left most of the misspellings from the journal, only editing when it would be confusing for the reader, but his diligence in proving that this is the true story of a pre-1850s slave is admirable.

Hannah Crafts's story is unlike many in that she was a house slave and had several opportunities (to learn, to pray, to walk freely) that others didn't. This doesn't mean that she didn't suffer hardships, but it is a unique version of our history.

Due to this nonfiction feel, as well as the mostly unedited prose, I don't feel it's right for me to "rate" this book. It would be like reading my grandmother's diary and rating its contents.

Hannah's story fills only half of the book; the remaining half is Gates's interpretations and explanations, from analyzing the paper pulp to studying other writings of that time. For those of you interested in American slavery history, this is a vital book to read.