It’s just what I expected, but I’m still annoyed that I only read six books this month. Work is quite demanding, so I’m starting to wonder about making it to 100 this year. Since it’s now National Poetry Month, I’ll go ahead and ask: What happens to a triple-digit dream deferred?
Category Archives: book reviews
Winter’s Bone – Daniel Woodrell. I’ve found a new author to love and admire. He was right there all along under my nose in my own home state! Winter’s Bone is as bleak and spare as its title. In spirit, this novel is very close to True Grit. In a part of the Missouri Ozarks that most definitely would not remind readers of Branson, 16-year-old Ree Dolly’s father has gone missing. He used the family’s dilapidated old house as collateral for part of his bond, and if he doesn’t turn up for his court date, Ree, her mentally fragile mother and two little brothers will lose their home. Ree sets out to find her father and meets with incredible opposition, even from her closest kin. The movie version of Winter’s Bone is brilliant as well. Daniel Woodrell’s style has been christened “country noir”. It certainly fits. I’m looking forward to reading and enjoying more of his work, particularly Tomato Red and Woe To Live On.
A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain – Robert Olen Butler. In this 1993 Pulitzer fiction winner, Vietnamese immigrants to Louisiana speak about their experiences in the old world and the new. It seems very daring that Butler decided to tell these fifteen stories from the Vietnamese viewpoint, but he’s delicate, sensitive and very knowledgeable about that culture, so it works beautifully.
The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins. Finally, a young adult series that I can truly love. The Hunger Games are a yearly occurence in a future dystopian North America, now called Panem and divided into twelve districts, ruled by a wealthy and corrupt Capitol. Two young adults, aged 12-18 are selected from each district as a “tribute” to fight to the death the young people selected from the other eleven districts. The last person left alive receives fame and riches. The whole bloody spectacle is broadcast as a reality show. As the novel begins, 12-year-old Primrose Everdeen has been selected as a tribute from District 12, one of the poorer regions of Panem. Her older sister, Katniss, a seasoned hunter and poacher, volunteers to take her place. Collins’ pacing is excellent and she doesn’t flinch from presenting the violent aspects. Although it is by no means a funny book, I couldn’t repress a sickly smile at how her take on this most gruesome of reality shows is pitch-perfect and so similar to what we see on television all the time now. Now that I’m invested in Katniss as a character, I’d like to finish the trilogy (Catching Fire and Mockingjay), but I don’t see how they can pack as much of a wallop as The Hunger Games.
White Noise – Don DeLillo. Douglas Coupland fans, come and see how your author was influenced by this 1985 novel. The writing is hilarious, but the story as a whole never worked for me. The characters are cartoonish, two-dimensional and it feels so unsatisfying. I’m almost sure that this was DeLillo’s point, but it was hard going. I would enjoy this story so much more in another form — a graphic novel or a movie, for example.
Veronica – Mary Gaitskill. I didn’t feel engaged by the main character, Alison, a former model down on her luck and less so by her friend, Veronica, who died of AIDS. (Their story is told by the technique of continuous cross-cutting from the past to the present, so that wasn’t a spoiler.) I’ve been an admirer of Gaitskill’s writing since her first collection of short stories, Bad Behavior came out back in 1988. I was so caught up in her edginess that I didn’t notice until this novel what a gift Gaitskill has for imagery. Parts of Veronica verge on poetry. Mary Gaitskill reminds me of Lorrie Moore, except imagine Lorrie on recreational drugs in a fuck-you-the-world-is-shit kind of mood.
Parched – Heather King. At the age of thirteen, Heather King drank her first beer and took a headlong dive into the bottle that lasted twenty years. She reviews her entire life and her early years seem unremarkable. Quotations from Psalms and the Gospel begin each chapter, so one can be sure that spirituality played an important part in her recovery. There are also shadowy references to Catholic writers and practices studded throughout the book, so I wasn’t surprised to read in the biographical note that she attends a Catholic church in Los Angeles. King’s writing is at its best when she’s describing her horrific and often pathetic drunken behavior, and I was agog at her description of how she managed to successfully complete law school during her sharp downward spiral. Clearly, she’s brilliant. There’s a sequel to this book that I’m hoping to find. Parched reminded me of another very good alcoholic memoir by Caroline Knapp called Drinking: A Love Story.
Books read in January: 12
>This wraps up everything I read in 2010. Whew.
I have been a huge Rosanne Cash fan since that summer day in 1981 when I went to Peaches, a record store in Tulsa and bought her 1979 album, Right or Wrong, then went back to my then-boyfriend’s parents’ home and laid it on their turntable. Composed is a surprisingly literary memoir. Sometimes, it seems extremely introspective as if Cash were writing to herself rather than to an audience of readers, but I admire her tastefulness, her intellect and her dazzling ability to see connections in practically everything.
This book is juvenile nonfiction and it’s also a picture book. Right out of the gate it suffers from an identity crisis. It doesn’t really succeed as a picture book because the color palette is too dark and muddy. As far as the nonfiction goes, there’s a lot of names and expertly-done caricatures of country stars from the past, but many of them are just presented as names and faces and that’s all. Only the keenest and most interested young reader would be motivated to Google for more in-depth information. Also, the book has the dual disadvantage of being out of date and being about a genre that is maniacal in its drive to always produce the newest flavor of the month, (even if that flavor tastes increasingly of cheap plastic) and very young country fans have no bridge to tie yesterday to today. I can only see this book appealing to someone like myself or Sam from Book Chase because both of us enjoy and appreciate the history of country music and we’re old enough to get most of the references. One final complaint: There’s no bibliography, which is inexcusable. Even if the people reading the book are only waist-high and seriously believe that Hannah Montana is a real person and that french fries with ranch dressing and bacon bits is a balanced meal, they have a right to a list of original sources.
>Here are some of my reads during December:
In The Woods – Tana French.
This novel was the December BOOKLEAVES selection. I really didn’t expect to like it at all because I’m not a big mystery fan, but I ended up liking it very much. Rob, a police detective based near Dublin and his partner, Cassie are put on a murder case that happened in the country near an archaeological dig. It also happens to be the same place where, 20 years before, Rob (then called Adam) and 2 of his best friends went missing. The friends were never found and Rob/Adam was found safe a couple of days later, clinging to a tree with no memory of what happened. The more seasoned mystery readers in the group were able to spot the murderer almost immediately and guessed at another character’s involvement. I got really caught up in the intricately choreographed way Rob and Cassie would interrogate suspects — it was my favorite aspect of the novel. Some readers groused that one of the mysteries was never solved, but I didn’t mind — it seemed more realistic. I’m looking forward to reading more of Tana French’s work.
Holidays on Ice – David Sedaris.
I read this one because my co-worker Brian saw that I was at 97 books and he wanted to nudge me closer to triple digits. We swapped Sedaris — I gave him Me Talk Pretty One Day. Holidays on Ice seems a little uneven, but the first offering in the collection, “The Santaland Diaries”, which is about his sojourn as a department store elf, is definitely worth your time. I was reading it while eating lunch alone at Lotteria (Korea’s version of a fast food burger chain) and I laughed suddenly and loudly. The three ajummas at the table next to me jumped and stared.
Dream Story – Arthur Schnitzler.
Although I’ve never seen the movie Eyes Wide Shut, I was definitely interested in this 1926 Austrian novel, the source material. Too soon, I found myself borstrated with the draggy, semi-surreal plot. Dream Story is less than a hundred pages, so I was able to tough it out, but I won’t be turning it into a Read the Book, See the Movie Challenge. Thanks anyway to my book buddy Paul (who’s got all those great Jim Thompson novels!) for the loan.
The Rule of Saint Benedict – St. Benedict. Faulkner Guy passed this slim volume to me several months ago, and I finally read it, making it book #100 for the year. (Not only is Faulkner Guy Faulkner Guy, he is Medieval Guy.) In 73 short chapters, Benedict of Nursia lays out a constitution and laws for living in a religious community and he touches on almost every detail of daily life including the election of an abbot, obedience, daily labor, the twelve degrees of humility, prayer, diet, reading scripture at mealtimes, punishment and how to dress and behave while traveling away from the monastery. Although there are rules for everything except breathing, they seem thoughtful and moderate, and there is a degree of democracy present. This book was written around 530, but Benedict’s vigorous and clear writing has aged well.
Ride The River – Louis L’Amour. This novel is part of the Sackett series, and the only one featuring a female Sackett, 16-year-old Echo. After spending her whole life in the mountains of Tennessee, Echo journeys to Philadelphia to collect an inheritance. The lawyer with the money advertised as minimally as he could, in hopes that no one would ever come forth, but Echo saw the notice by chance. Now he intends to cheat her, but Echo’s smart and ready to kick ass if needed. L’Amour made some of the clumsiest style choices in 20th century fiction. There’s too much exposition and the book could spawn several rounds of drinking games since Echo repeats herself so much, but if you like a snappy plot and the reassurance that the Sacketts always come out all right, you might enjoy seeing this hillbilly Katniss in action.
The Quiet Little Woman – Louisa May Alcott. I read this during Christmas week for the All About Alcott Challenge. Back in the 1870s, three sisters were huge fans of Little Women and decided to pay homage to the March sisters and Alcott by creating their own literary magazine. Alcott heard about this and kindly contributed to their effort the three stories in this volume, all with a Christmas theme. There’s nothing of Jo March here, the character that gives Little Women its fire and energy. On the contrary, these anemic, sentimental tales seem more like they could have been authored by Beth from her sickbed. The Quiet Little Women is nice as a stocking stuffer for a grade school girl or for devotees of Louisa May Alcott who would like to get their hands on absolutely everything she ever wrote, but the latter group should be advised that they will need a good strong dose of A.M. Barnard afterwards.
>I can’t help but be a little disappointed — only six books for October. With huge amounts of classroom prep and a conference to attend this month, I ran into a little bit of reader’s block. I had counted on the Readathon to bring up my numbers and make the rest of my journey to 100+ books a cakewalk, but it just didn’t happen. (Well, the Readathon happened, but I didn’t.)
It’s not all gloomy news, though — I made some progress on a couple of challenges. Here’s what got read:
1. The Naked and the Dead – Norman Mailer. An enormously satisfying war novel. I discussed it a little more here. I’m hoping to find out more about the alleged movie remake.
2. The Red Badge of Courage – Stephen Crane. The book and the movie!
3. The Lost City of Z – David Grann. I thought the Arctic explorers were tough guys, but they had nothing on Percy Fawcett, a middle-aged former army officer who carved a career out of exploring the Amazon repeated times for the Royal Geographic Society. Fawcett seemed to have a freakishly strong constitution, since he survived countless brushes with death in hostile (man and nature) conditions and he was possessed with an iron will. He was also simply obsessed.
In 1925, Fawcett embarked on a quest to find an ancient and highly-developed civilization that he staunchly believed had existed in the jungles of Brazil. He took along his son Jack and Jack’s best friend, Raleigh Rimmell. The trio was never seen again, although many tried to locate them for decades.
Nearly 80 years after Fawcett’s disappearance, reporter David Grann decided to investigate. Meticulous research, crisp reporting and mesmerizing writing by Grann coupled with dozens of captivating photos from the past and present make this book worthy of every bit of praise it has received since its publication last year.
4. I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon – Crystal Zevon. I’m really disappointed in this oral biography/memoir of singer-songwriter Warren Zevon. Whether his songs were goofy, sardonic, cutting, edgy, tender or just plain good storytelling wedded to the perfect pop hook, Zevon was startlingly and unfailingly brilliant at his craft. I expected the same level of perfection with the story of his life.
Instead, fans have been presented with a chronologically-arranged volume of anecdotes from people who were in (and out) of his life. Many of the names are familiar — Jackson Browne, for example — but many are not, which makes things a little confusing. A list explaining who they are and how they fit in finally appears, but as an appendix. Hardly any of them have a talent for the good anecdote.
Crystal Zevon (Warren’s former wife and lifelong friend) has thrown everything, including frequent glimpses into Zevon’s diaries. Again, there’s no sense of discernment. Unfortunately, Zevon’s private writings reflect almost zero of his genius for writing and the dullness is painfully repeated by multiple entries. Since Crystal Zevon was close to Warren, the book suffers from over-subjectivity and has a claustrophobic quality at times.
Zevon had a dark side and he could be a nasty and mean SOB even after he stopped drinking. I’ve never objected to seeing any of my literary, cinematic or musical heroes and heroines portrayed with warts galore, but let it be done by a biographer (such as A. Scott Berg or Blake Bailey) whose talents in this area are equal to Zevon’s talent in songwriting. A little distance and objectivity would greatly benefit the story of this enigmatic performer.
5. True Grit – Charles Portis. I gulped this 1968 novel down in a couple of sittings. With the coolness and steeliness of purpose that a Harry Callahan or a Paul Kersey might exhibit, 14-year-old Mattie Ross engages the services of one Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn to help her track down Tom Chaney, the hired hand who killed her father. The incident is recounted by Mattie 50 years later. She’s a powerful, quirky and often unintentionally funny narrator. When it comes to voice, Portis has all the goods.
In this edition, there’s a very entertaining afterword by Donna Tartt, who also read the audiobook. I’m squeamish at worst and uncertain at best when it comes to the spoken book but I’d tramp through the pattiest of cow pastures in cowboy boots a size too small to get my ears next to this one.
6. The Real F. Scott Fitzgerald: Thirty-Five Years Later – Sheilah Graham. A lovely mixture of literary and Hollywood gossip, although it irritated me that Sheilah kept having to remind her readers how irresistible she was to men, from her short-lived engagement to the Marquis of Donegall at the beginning of the book to her almost-seduction at the hands of Gary Cooper near the end of the book. It’s nice that she and Scottie (Scott and Zelda’s daughter) remained friends. Fitzgerald aficionados will probably feel as if they’ve seen much of the same ground covered before.
>Ten books this month. Not bad, considering that my brain was slowly and systematically being melted in the hellish heat of my apartment (which, in retrospect fit in rather well with my Joyce Carol Oates and Jim Thompson outings). My best reading moments were on the subway and in the Dunkin’ Donuts in Itaewon. Both locales were so nicely icy.