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.

Friday, June 20, 2008

53. "Geek Love" - Katherine Dunne

When was the last time that I gloated and gabbed about a book? OK, you stinkers, I mean *really* couldn't stop turning the pages / ate-drank-breathed the story / adored finding a new voice in writing? I think it was The Terror, by Dan Simmons.

Geek Love is not about nerdy conquests, but rather the Binewski family, a ragtag bunch of freak show hits, created expressly by two loving parents with a penchant for mixing drugs and herbs purposefully in order to create "unique" children. Elly and Iphy are the singing Siamese twins, Arty is the flipper boy, and our narrator, Oly, has a hunchback.

Oh, yeah. Can't you feel the possibilities?

Dunn delivers. In fact, I wonder if I could stand to be in her brain. She comes up with some pretty messed up stuff... which I ate with sprinkles on top, of course.

Some may argue (as they did with The Terror) that the ending sucks. While I loved the former, I'm still undecided about Geek Love, though I don't mind rewinding and thinking about it a bit.

4.7 out of 5.0 Fruit Freaks.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

52. "A High Wind in Jamaica" - Richard Hughes

I'm a great fan of The Lord of the Flies (oh, Piggy!), so when I heard that this was the precursor to that novel, I immediately put it on my must-read list.

The Bas-Thornton children have grown up on a wild plantation in Jamaica. After a terrible storm, Mrs. Thornton insists that the children must go back to England where they will be much safer.

Not quite. The steamer is attacked by pirates, the children taken hostage. However, the book is written in a keen child-view where the best way to win affection is through sugar and a smile.

I don't know if Hughes had experience as a child psychologist, but he nailed the thinking patterns of kids. While this is a fascinating aspect of the book, it is no The Lord of the Flies, but it does stand on its own separate merits.

3.5 out 5.0 Jamaican Yo-Yos.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

51. "The Scandalous Summer of Sissy LeBlanc" - Lorraine Despres

Aha, I thought. I've found a beach book. The word "summer" is in the title. It looks like fun.


Sissy LeBlanc was your do-all Southern gal with smiles for the football players and an entire cheer created for her boyfriend, the (of course) captain of the football team.

She grows up, she has impossibly crazy things happen to her, and she settles down with the nerd of her class, while still carrying a torch for the captain. When he comes back into town, it throws Sissy into a thoughtful reminiscence of what could have been.

Toss in some holier-than-thou politics and a half-black cousin and you have a genuine soap opera of a book. It never spent the time to convince the reader of its believability, but chugged along on Southern Belle Handbook phrases on grabbing and keeping a man. I kept hoping it would get better, but to my chagrin, it became more unbelievable and irritating. Ah well, I suppose that's why they are beach books.

What are *your* beach books for this summer?

1.75 out of 5.0 Tidal Waves.

50. "The True History of the Kelly Gang" - Peter Carey

Winner of the 2001 Man Booker Prize, this fictionalized account of the true Kelly gang that "tormented" 1860s+ Australia is one of the most unique books that I've read in some time.

First, the language is rough, and for a grammar queen like me, it took some getting used to. Ned Kelly, the so-called leader of this Irish gang, wants his newborn daughter to know the true story of her da, so he writes from the heart. It is a 12-year-old's literacy level, which means there are several sentences that combine several ideas without so much as the dot of a period. It took about 20 pages before I could turn off my teacher-mode and enjoy the visual details.

Ned Kelly and other Irishmen are ripe pickings for English police, and many are imprisoned without so much as a trial. On the other hand, Ned is freed from gaol several times due to his "bush" connections. He wants to be a Robin Hood of the bush, helping widows and children, but he steals from the banks and continues to razz the constables.

I loved the explorer aspect of this novel where I, as reader, page through awkward speech to find the gems of imagery and heart-heavy prose. While it reminded me of Finnegan's Wake, this was much easier to read and felt less like drudging through mire. To find out that Ned Kelly existed and reigned in the Australian outback was a bonus.

3.75 out of 5.0 Kangaroos.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

49. "Beautiful Children" - Charles Bock

I'm all for second chances, so here we roll...

Perhaps I would have enjoyed this book more if:

1. I recognized my son in the behavior of the runaway kid character;

2. My son hadn't threatened to run away when we took away TV privileges (yes, I know);

3. Being a mom, I constantly worry about behavior issues and future lives and kidnappings and runaways and drug use and pornography and-and-and.

All of the beautiful children in this book are stereotypical and based on pop culture... the author tells us this in a later chapter. I missed finding out the ends of their stories, though. After 400+ pages, I felt that I was owed that.

However, the wonderful, seedy backdrop of Las Vegas is described and depicted in brilliant shapes and colors and tones, which is what drew me in after I had called it a day.

I don't doubt the author's intent to write a novel that was of post-post-modern style. I just don't think it worked as well as he wanted. The family's story is heart-breaking and vivid, while the comic book author was useless. The Washington Times critic said that this book needs to be read twice to be understood. Twice? Seriously? The first time was painful enough, thanks.

2.0 out of 5.0 Vegas Bombs.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

XX. "Beautiful Children" - Charles Bock

I heard Charles Bock on NPR while he was touring for this book. His descriptions of the amount of research that it took to write this novel was impressive, and I thought that I needed to read it as soon as my fantastic librarians could dig it up for me. (I'm horribly lazy and they are wonderfully cooperative.)

From the first ten pages, I knew that I couldn't read it. Not after this fantastic run of good books. No way. I would not be able to be objective; or, it simply didn't live up to my expectations of language now.

Eventually, I'll have to read a less than stellar book and review it. But, right now, my mind pleads, "Not yet! It's summer... indulge yourself."

48. "Black Swan Green" - David Mitchell

The year-long peek into the life of Jason Taylor, resident of Black Swan Green, Worchestershire, can only be described as a fun 80s flashback, though somewhat different than my own. His memories of the Falklands War coincide with mine of a serious Ronald Reagan offering support to Margaret Thatcher.

Anyway, though this is called a novel, I felt that it read like a group of short stories - all about Jason, but each chapter could be a separate entity from the whole.

His mastery of slang and teen-talk is epic, and the book follows the typical style of the coming-of-age novel. The difference is that Jason Taylor may think that Black Swan Green is an armpit, but all of his experiences and descriptions of other characters prove otherwise for the reader.

4.0 out of 5.0 Green Zombies.

Monday, June 02, 2008

47. "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" - Michael Chabon

This 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is a miasma of Jewish history, comic book-ery, and early New York. In the end, it's a story of Joe Kavalier and his attempts to bring his brother to safety in New York City prior to and during World War II.

Kavalier's determination is what drives this story, a 20-year chunk of life that includes his own escape from Germany. He joins cousin Sam Clay in creating multiple serial comic superstars, the most famous of which is "The Escapist."

Again, I find it interesting that so many novels refer to Harry Houdini, but if you've read any of his biographies, it shouldn't be a surprise.

I like to read novels that are plot-based and ones that are character-based. This is a rare one that combines both features into a weekend-busting read.

4.25 out of 5.0 Hulk's Pisses.