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.