Tuesday, April 29, 2008

"Of course, the open secret is that 'The Novel 100' isn't really about pigeonholes. Nor is it an invitation to a fistfight.

"Its purpose is to start readers off on a lifetime friendship with great books. And what are a few small differences of opinion between friends?" - Dr. Daniel S. Burt

I'm already putting up my dukes because To Kill a Mockingbird didn't make his top 100 - it's in the honorary mentions (100 more books). Pshaw. I think this will be fun.

What I like about this book - and I can't believe I'm saying this - is that Burt stands on no pretense, yet comes across as the kindest literary professor. I'd like to think of myself as the kindest literary professor, but we all know I'm just a big ol' grump.

To keep the continuity of my crankiness and quirkiness, I vow to write my reviews of the books *before* reading Burt's reasoning. After reading about 100 Years of Solitude, I thought, "He's right. Wow. I didn't know that. This is an incredible book. I didn't do it justice." But Burt has the inside information pieced together from author interviews and other reviews. Most of us read books without the crib notes. I write my reviews for you.

So, split into two sections, the Top 100 and a Second Hundred (honorary mentions), I've noted that I've read the following:

Robinson Crusoe
Pride and Prejudice
The Scarlet Letter
Uncle Tom's Cabin
Great Expectations
Fathers and Sons
Anna Karenina
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The Hound of the Baskervilles
(seriously, who didn't read this in high school?)
The Great Gatsby
A Farewell to Arms
The Sound and the Fury
Gone With the Wind
Their Eyes Were Watching God
The Grapes of Wrath
Nineteen Eighty-Four
The Catcher in the Rye
One Hundred Years of Solitude
The Handmaid's Tale
David Copperfield
Love Medicine
As I Lay Dying
To Kill a Mockingbird
The Sun Also Rises
Sons and Lovers
The Naked and the Dead
Portnoy's Complaint
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Treasure Island
Rabbit, Run

33 down. 167 to go. And, to put a fun spin on it, 167 books need to be read by May 1, 2009.

And the clock... begins... now.

Monday, April 28, 2008

"No one is able to enjoy such feast than the one who throws a party in his own mind." - Selma Lagerlöf

I'm writing historical fiction; therefore, I can't read the subject anymore.

Instead, I'm going to follow a new plan set out by the book, "Novel 100," by Daniel S. Burt. You can find more information about it here. The actual book has 100 more books that didn't make the top list. Between my heavy past with banned books and top 1001, I've probably read 60 of the 200 listed, which leaves a nice number to pound through during the rest of 2008.

Of course, anyone who claims to know the top 100 books is open to my scrutiny. A friend said that in a couple years I will have read more than the average bear and can write my own book: "Kiss My Ass and Read These Books."

37. "The Crimson Petal and the White" - Michel Faber

"Words can say things even bodies can't. And that's why a book like this is even better than sex." - Time magazine

I call bullshit.

Many of you encouraged me to try to read this book after I had eliminated it in my XX style. No offense, but I now realize that my instincts are never wrong.

I'm royally pissed. 840+ pages and I know three things to be true:

1. Michel Faber is published and read because he knows the "bait and switch" technique of marketers. He gave you tons of sex... loads of similes that ended in "like ejaculate" or "as if it were a woman's orifice." Then...

2. There is the constant desire to raise the whore to princess levels. Need I say "Pretty Woman"? Of course, this results in...

3. Cutting said woman back down to size.

But that's not all. Three main characters disappear. Gone! Couldn't 840+ pages be edited to include an ending?

I'm furious. I'm absolutely steaming that I pushed through a major headache to read this. If I were to meet Michel Faber, I would introduce myself, then slap him silly. It's a childish attempt at erotica that ends with questionable morality.

Royally pissed. The end.

P.S. Still love my readers.

0.0 out of 5.0 Dogg Pisses.

Friday, April 25, 2008

XX. "Reindeer Moon"

Note to self: this is worth checking again. The library copy was so old and well loved that it crumpled in my hands.

Did mammoth live at the same time as humans? This may influence whether I pick it up again.

XX. "The Game of Kings" - Dorothy Dunnett

Extremely difficult to get into, I hadn't realized that this was the first of a series of seven books. All well and good, but at 700+ pages a pop, I just don't feel motivated to wrestle through the first hundred of 4,900.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

"People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them." - James A. Baldwin

Settle in, children, for Auntie Kristin has a story to tell.

Once upon a time, I wrote a screenplay that received one award and many requests to "peruse" by agents and producers. The attention died down until one winter day when it seemed like it would be optioned by a well-connected, highly public actor-director-producer.

But reading historical novels caused me to, in the words of my eldest, "grow a pair."

I could not option the script and receive permission to write the novel. And, as I read more and more, I became certain that I could turn the script into novel form.

So, this is what I've been doing... the big project that I've hinted at and hemmed about. It is rolling through fingertips to pages, and I am overconfident in believing that someone with a free blog will someday criticize it to pieces.

I'll continue to read historical fiction, but I'm also revising my reading plan to include the excellent samples of modern literature. There is a pile of more than 25 books that threaten to topple over every time I pass by, so it's more of a general housekeeping goal to get those books read and catalogued in my personal library.

Thanks again for the recommendations... you will be seeing some of them "in the fridge" shortly.

36. "Gates of Fire" - Steven Pressfield

I have long been fascinated by the Spartan culture; in fact, my husband has had the following quote at the bottom of his email for years -- "With your shield or on it." (what Spartan mothers would tell their sons before battle.)

Gates of Fire takes the warrior-making culture and breaks it down philosophically, spiritually, and psychologically - but all of the tales are from the eyes and heart of a Spartan slave who chose to join its ranks rather than be a slave of Athens.

The final battle of Thermopylae is not the fantastic choreography of 300 or Braveheart. It is the blood and shit and piss of battle. It is the fierceness of fighting for your brother-at-arms whom you protect with your shield. It is an amazing interpretation of the honor and steadfast beauty of the Spartan warriors.

4.5 out of 5.0 Bonapartes Secret Greek Battle.

35. "One Hundred Years of Solitude" - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

After about 40 pages, I felt like I had entered the world of Laura Esquivel, author of Like Water for Chocolate. Instead of the Mexican mythology/mysticism, One Hundred Years of Solitude focuses on Latin American history. Simply, it is a fairy tale history with a splash of fantasy.

The book revolves around the Buendia family. Purposefully confusing, nearly all of the male members are either named Jose Arcadio or Aureliano (and I will apologize for my lack of proper Spanish accents now). Covering seven generations, Marquez tells the story of the settling of Latin America, though without naming specific countries. There are civil wars, familial strife, and mystical thinking. For example, just one random page-flip and I reread this passage:

"A trickle of blood came out under the door, crossed the living room, went out into the street, continued on in a straight line across the uneven terraces, went down steps and climbed over curbs, passed along the Street of the Turks, turned a corner to the right and another to the left, made a right angle at the Buendía house, went in under the closed door, crossed through the parlor, hugging the walls so as not to stain the rugs, went on to the other living room, made a wide curve to avoid the dining-room table, went along the porch with the begonias, and passed without being seen under Amaranta's chair as she gave an arithmetic lesson to Aureliano José, and went through the pantry and came out in the kitchen, where Úrsula was getting ready to crack thirty-six eggs to make bread.

"Holy Mother of God!" Úrsula shouted."

After getting over the confusion of names, it was a charming read, though too much cheekiness can be like too much sugar. By the time I finished the novel, I was ready to say goodbye to the Buendias and all of their quirks.

4.0 out of 5.0 Spanish Town Cocktails.

Friday, April 18, 2008

34. "Paper Moon" - Joe David Brown

As Addie, our 11-year-old narrator, would say, there are still pickin's in the South... particularly Depression-era South where Paper Moon takes place.

If you've seen the 1975 movie, be warned - you've only seen the first half of the book. This concerns me because it is the novel in its entirety that makes it so wonderfully overdone.

Addie and her possible father/dependable guardian, Long Boy, start with petty thieveries like confusing cute cashiers out of larger bills and meddling with widow's hearts by tricking them into buying the last gifts from their husbands. To love this book, one must love Addie, who has been compared to Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. She has the same spunk and sass, but she is no Scout.

Instead, she has a flair for funny similes and descriptions. And if you love Addie's character, it is easy to believe the later heists that she partakes in with Long Boy and a millionaire mentor named Major. It is a completely different take on the southern legends of cotton (they swindle the buyers) and geniality (they use it to fool many).

A unique historical novel? No. A cutesy Bonnie and Clyde? No. It's Addie Pray's story, and she tells one tall tale.

4.0 out of 5.0 Jelly Donuts.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

XX. "Taliesin" - Stephen Lawhead

I am on one horrific bender, it seems. Fortunately, all of you readers who have been so supportive in the past with recommendations have stayed mum throughout this historical fiction nonsense, so I have no one to blame but myself.

Taliesin. A "what if" about the early Celts and Atlantean cultures. Seemed like the potential for greatness, but it didn't touch my cold, bitter soul.

I'm exhausting my historical fiction resources and dipping too close to covers with Fabio-like renditions. Help a poor chickie out. Your recommendations desperately needed.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

XX. "The Golden Age" - Gore Vidal

First ten pages are pretentious... or perhaps it is the first page filled from top to bottom of Gore Vidal's accomplishments, down to every title of every essay, leaving no white space for the imagination to breathe.

Thirty pages should be enough to tell, I say to myself. But I felt it in my core far before page 28 when I stopped and looked at the checkout tab. Minnesota libraries keep the card pockets in its books, and I get a strange delight in seeing when a book was checked out. This one, however, had never been stamped with a date. So telling... I wish I had checked it first.

33. "One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd" - Jim Fergus

In the 1854, the Cheyenne people asked the United States government for 1,000 white women as brides to prove positive relations between the two "nations." Of course the chief, Little Wolf, was refused with disgust.

What if his request had been accepted? This novel explores the possibility of women sent to the Cheyenne for the simple purpose of baby-makin'. Women are released from prisons and hard labor, shamed existences and insane asylums. May Dodd, the narrator of these faux diaries, shares the women's adventurous tale.

If you can believe that women would happily comply to this test, and if you can believe that the Cheyenne men would be content with these strange women, and *if* you can believe the rest of the Cheyenne women and children would be okay with such an agreement, then you will enjoy the story. The characters are bold and memorable, even if the plot is a bit predictable.

But there's that "if."

I had difficulty letting go of my disbelief, mainly concerning the Cheyenne males. The women storm in on rituals and interrupt personal time with no reaction from the men other than grunts of disapproval. I didn't buy it.

Still, it's well researched and entertaining, which can be enough for some readers, like me on a stormy Saturday.

2.9 out of 5.0 Prairie Chickens.

32. "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" - Thornton Wilder

A friar sees the collapse of an Inca rope bridge that tosses five people to their deaths. He feels that he can prove God's purpose by exploring each of the lives in detail.

Set in 1927 Peru, there is little about the culture other than two true-to-life historical characters: Manuel de Amat y Juniet and Micaela Villegas.

Named one of the top 100 books of the century, as well as winner of the Pulitzer for fiction, this book should have melted my icy heart. Instead, it simply reflected off it with a scattering of rainbows. Or perhaps that's the vodka and migraine meds talking. Anyway, it was a huge disappointment.

1.0 out of 5.0 Coffee Flings.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

31. "The Tenderness of Wolves" - Stef Penney

Winter is just beginning to tease and freeze in 1867 pioneer Canada. At Dove River, Mrs. Ross finds the dead body of her neighbor, a French trapper. Meanwhile, her son, Francis, has been missing for a few days.

There is no tenderness of wolves in this debut novel, which won the Costa Book of the Year in 2007. But there is hidden tenderness to be found in the hearts of the characters.

Still, I found it to be more mystery novel than historical fiction. There was some historical data, but nothing fresh or unique. Overall, I liked the characters, even if it felt that circumstances were over-manipulated to fit the author's purpose.

2.4 out of 5.0 Blue Romeos.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

30. "The Princes of Ireland" - Edward Rutherfurd

Have you ever been to a restaurant and, in an act of piggish forwardness, asked for "a little" bacon and cheddar cheese on top of your order of fries? Then, to your shock and dismay (after eating, of course), you've injested twice your body weight in saturated fats and taste pig with every burp for the next two weeks.

And so it is with The Rebels of Ireland. So much information, so many choices to make during its creation. Such disappointing results.

Rutherfurd's first novel of the "Dublin Saga" told brief stories of Irish/Celtic/Norwegian history, but, like the small amount of bacon and cheese, he focuses on the boring details of history instead of bringing it to life for the reader through his interpretation.

Perhaps it is because he lives in Dublin and would be faced with his peers daily. After reading 450+ pages, I feel bloated with dates and treaties and kings' names. Definitely a step up from the history books, but only a teensy hop.

2.0 out of 5.0 Everybody's Irish.

Friday, April 04, 2008

XX. "Andersonville" - MacKinlay Kantor

Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War Novel! These words exclaimed on the cover in larger type than the author's name.

After 300 pages, I see why it is worthy of the award.

However... and you knew there would be a "however."

However, at what point do you give up, give in, dreamily look at the other beautiful book covers, sneak peeks, flip through the first few pages, the first chapter, then return and check the last chapter of a 750-page-plus doorstop?

It looks like right. About. Now.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

"We could meet for drinks, then talk about books over breakfast." - recent email

It's that time again... love in all its guises from the email bag:

"I like your blog, but I have a hard time taking you seriously. You are condoning alcohol abuse. My father [blanked out to protect the innocent, but imagine alcoholic family stereotype] and it's insulting to have people think that alcohol and the abuse is ok, even funny."

Please read the archives for my opinion about this. Then, talk to someone who is better equipped for talk therapy than me.

"Do you ever Google yourself?"

I have the Google alerts, but, strangely enough, I rarely read that email. It's usually a blast from the past, like a webpage I wrote for a PR company ten years ago.

"I have to admit that I'm not digging the whole historical novel vibe."

It is extremely limiting, and I have a feeling that by summer I'll be over it. However, I'm learning a lot about the genre and enjoying more of what I'm reading, at least compared to "the 1001 books to read before you die."

"You hurt a lot of people's feelings, including mine. How will you like that when your writing is published? At least mine WAS published." [continued rant]

If you're going to put yourself out there, you can expect to be criticized. My first book (wow, yes I was published) has major flaws. There. I admit it. But I took my hits, too. You need to pick and choose... you can't take everyone's advice.

This is a reader's blog as seen through a writer's lens. I'm not an anonymous hater. You know who I am and you can contact me directly. For now, I'd concentrate on growing a thicker skin. It has served me well.

XX. "The Far Pavilions" - M.M. Kaye

750-plus pages and I couldn't pass the first twenty without skipping back, thumbing ahead, and forgetting the last paragraphs.

Has anyone read this?

29. "The Tokaido Road" - Lucia St. Clair Robson

This is the first book that hasn't been European at its core, which was a refreshing change. It is a story of revenge and power, particularly a woman's power (or lack thereof) in early 1700 Japan.

Cat, the illegitimate daughter of Lord Asano and his "outside" wife, has given herself up to the courtesan trade to support her mother. When it appears that Lord Kira, the cause of Lord Asano's disgrace and death, is trying to kill Cat, she leaves to journey along the Tokaido Road to avenge her father by murdering Kira.

The book is rich as custard in details, whether it is the customs of Buddhist monks or the clothing of each caste. By the time I reached the end, I forgot that the purpose was to kill Lord Kira because I was so entranced by the subtleties of language and history. The truth of the story - 47 of Lord Asano's people murder Lord Kira - is suddenly shoved into place like a round brick, shocking this reader into methodical thinking rather than the preferred enchantment of descriptions.

Outside of that, it is a wonderful example of this period of Japanese history and culture.

4.0 out of 5.0 Tokyo Teas.

28. "The Blessing Stone" - Barbara Wood

A meteorite lands on earth hundreds of thousands of years ago. Through scientific magic, it turns into a small, blue stone. This novel follows the stone through different eras in history, from a hunting-gathering tribe to a western pioneer trail.

I finished this a while ago and have neglected my duties, aiming more for drinks for dinner than books for breakfast. From what I recall about this book, I think it is ideal for a book group. The research of each time was done well. But it didn't stick with me.

2.5 out of 5.0 Vodka Paralyzers.