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March: Page Plummet, Novel Nosedive

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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?

1. The Cariboo Horses – Al Purdy.
(I spilled the banks of my overwhelming love for Alfred Wellington Purdy earlier this month. )
2. True Grit – Charles Portis.
I reread this again for Bookleaves Book Group. We ate at Tony Roma’s and discussed the book, then we went to see the new movie version (retitled “The Brave” for its release in South Korea) at Cine Cube. Then I found a copy of the movie a few days ago. I’m up to four viewings. My friend Leigh is going back and forth, trying to decide who is the better Rooster Cogburn: John Wayne or Jeff Bridges? I’m going to have to go with Bridges. When I watch the 1969 True Grit, I’m seeing nothing but John Wayne except the other characters in the movie are calling him Rooster. In the 2010 version, there is no Jeff Bridges, just an old reprobate named Rooster Cogburn. Glen Campbell vs. Matt Damon as LaBoeuf is a no-brainer; I’m more and more charmed by Damon’s nicely nuanced performance with each progressive viewing. Kim Darby vs. Hailee Steinfeld: Gotta go with Hailee. Poor kid, she got robbed at the Oscars. Although I prefer the remake, something young and primal within me cries out for the original movie as well. Sometimes I require both movies on the same day. I’ve hardly spoken of the book, but Oh. My. God. Even better than either movie. If you haven’t read True Grit yet, stop wasting time on this blog and go find it.
3. Another Bullshit Night In Suck City – Nick Flynn.
Probably because of its provocative title, I was expecting to be blown away by this memoir of a ne’er-do-well father meeting his estranged son in a homeless shelter in Boston, where the latter is working. It’s an incredible story without an ounce of the sentimentality I was dreading. I was left wondering what has become of Flynn’s father since the book was published in 2004, but I wasn’t really drawn in the way I am with some memoirs — like The Glass Castle, for example. Flynn has a way of keeping readers at a distance, which really makes sense, considering his life, so perhaps I’m being too finicky. A movie is being made starring Robert De Niro and Paul Dano. I have plans to see how the Flynns’ story is translated to the screen.
4. Lucky: Maris, Mantle and My Best Summer Ever – Wes Tooke.
First things first: I hate that title. It smells like it was slapped together by a committee. A committee who hadn’t read the book. This is a juvenile novel (told in third person, so why is that first person pronoun in the title?) about a 12-year-old boy named Louis May who is lousy at baseball, but knows (and knows and knows) baseball statistics. Because of a lucky catch at a Yankees game in the summer of 1961 and his statistical inclinations, he gets a chance to be a batboy for the Yankees. All is not so rosy at home, though. Mom ran off to be a beatnik in Greenwich Village (in one scene, she takes him to The Gaslight where one of the performers is a very young Robert Zimmerman) and Louis is having trouble getting adjusted to life with his new stepmother and stepbrother. Louis’ story and his coming-of-age feels a little workmanlike but it’s all worth it for the great scenes with Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle teaching Louis (nicknamed “Lucky” by Maris) about life and baseball. Tooke really catches fire as Louis follows the exciting race to Babe Ruth’s record. A quick read and a wonderful way to prepare for Opening Day this year.
5. 84, Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff.
 We don’t have the same taste in books, Helene Hanff and I, but I could totally see myself making friends with a bookstore staff in post-war London and shipping them tasty treats at Christmastime. This memoir is related through twenty years of correspondence with Marks & Co. Booksellers. Reading this from a vantage point of more than 60 years onward, the prices made me smile. Hanff has a taste for the old and rare, and she’s sends them a five dollar bill and ends up with two bucks credited to her account. The best part is her feisty letters to the company and no matter how obnoxious she gets, she always gets a gentlemanly response from the patient manager, Frank Doel. I’m more than ready to treat myself to another viewing of the movie version starring Anne Bancroft as Hanff and Anthony Hopkins as Doel. 
6. Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov.
 I read this one for my Cracked Spinz book group. What a strange book. Because of the events in the novel, I am uncomfortable about admitting that I enjoyed it. There’s that numbingly clinical introduction. Then there’s Humbert Humbert, an unreliable narrator with a dark and twisted sense of humor that you can’t help enjoying, but then there’s his nasty, creepy predilection for “nymphets” and then there’s Russian-born author Nabokov playing around in French and English and making literary allusions, puns and anagrams with the same gleeful abandon of a kid at his mud pies and finally, there’s that rich, sumptuous, decadently beautiful prose. My mixed feelings of unease and admiration in equal parts reminds of my reaction to In Cold Blood — Capote’s precise, almost delicate narration and the horrific subject matter. Regarding Lolita, the air in my very own Bybeeary is already crackling, and book group is still ten days away. We are going to have our greatest discussion ever; there’s no other possibility.

>January, 2011: Reading & Reviewing, Part 2


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.

>January 2011: Reading & Reviewing, Part 1

Books read in January: 12

Total number of pages: 3,768

The Best of Everything – Rona Jaffe. I read this for the Reading Madly challenge. Three young women — Caroline, April and Gregg — go to New York City to live, work and fall in love. The latter is usually with disastrous results, since most of the men in the novel are white-collar shits. Caroline, who works her way up in a publishing company, seems to be the model for secretary-turned-ad copywriter Peggy Olson in Mad Men. What struck me about this book is how well-written and nicely edited it is. Most of the chapters are on the short side and episodic, so you can parcel The Best of Everything out to yourself in delectable slices or gobble it down whole, like I did. I’d love to cap this one off with a viewing of the 1959 movie.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain. I made sure that my internal culture clock was moved back to 1840s Missouri before I started this novel because I didn’t want to be distracted by the liberal use of the N-word. In spite of this preparation, I still had a few nasty optical speed bumps. (I should say shoals rather than speed bumps, since the setting is the Mississippi River.) Aside from that, it was a great read — most of the time. I was surprised at how much Huck and Holden Caulfield sound alike, for Huck has a bit of a depressive streak. Books don’t usually make me cry, but I have to admit that I had something in my eye when Jim related his memory about his little daughter, Elizabeth. Then there were those last chapters at Tom Sawyer’s relatives’ farm! Mr. Clemens, I love you to bits, but what the hell? No spoilers, but I wanted to take Aunt Sally’s thimble and crack it upside your gorgeous white head. Chapter The Last has some trouble spots as well, but it fits the previous action much better and restores to the ending that wonderful feeling of the river. I’ll be scratching my head about that one part for a long time, though. Next summer, I’m planning a trip to Hannibal, Missouri, where Mark Twain grew up. I’ve never been there. People tell me that it’s a huge tourist trap, but a tourist trap connected to literature suits me right down to the ground.

Hitch-22 – Christopher Hitchens. I had a little trouble keeping up with his discussions about various political situations in different countries, but I enjoyed reading his portraits of his mother and father, his friends, including Martin Amis, Edward Said, Susan Sontag and Salman Rushdie, his first trip to the United States, his eventually becoming a U.S. citizen and the relatively late-in-life bombshell discovery that his mother’s family was Jewish. This is a solid, well-crafted memoir.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Ugly Truth – Jeff Kinney. There’s so much I love about this series: 1. The graphic novel aspect 2. It looks like a kid’s diary, right down to the laborious-looking printing and the lined paper. 3. Greg’s mother’s name is Susan. 4. Rodrick’s band is called “Loaded Diaper”, which they spell in Motley Crue fashion. 5. Manny, the littlest Heffley boy is drawn about as big as a flea. 6. That grubby middle school feeling is captured perfectly. 7. Greg’s hapless friend Rowley, who is first afraid he’ll “catch puberty” then is elated when he starts sporting a huge Cyclopsian zit on his forehead. 8. Greg is so often oblivious in that cusp-of-adolescence way. 9. Greg reminds me a little bit of Doug Funnie. I really miss that show. 10. There’s always a potentially fun event that the adults manage to turn into a cluster, like the talent show in the first book and the “Lock-in” in this book.

Loving Frank – Nancy Horan. I shied away reading this book for a long time because I thought it had the reek of chick-lit on it. Then I resisted it anew after reading T.C. Boyle’s The Women because it covered similar ground and I was sure it wouldn’t be as creative or audacious as Boyle’s book. After spotting a copy at my friend Leigh’s apartment, I finally decided to go for it. There is a little bit of overlap, and the storytelling is much more straightforward, but it has its own way of grabbing the reader’s attention. My impression about chick-lit was wrong. The focus of the book is on Mamah Borthwick Cheney, Frank Lloyd Wright’s mistress. Her giddiness at the beginning of their affair was predictable and annoying, but there’s a gradual sea-change and readers see an intelligent portrayal of a complex woman who has an enormous capacity for self-delusion and we can feel and sympathize with Mamah’s sharp shocks as she slowly emerges from her cloud. If this novel is filmed, it will take a talented and subtle actress to pull this off. I nominate Molly Parker, who played Alma Garrett in Deadwood. Ultimately, I recommend that people read both Loving Frank and The Women, in that order — you get kind of a Mobius strip effect as a bonus.

The Piano Tuner – Daniel Mason. Although it’s technically very well-written, I couldn’t warm up to this novel about a piano tuner, Edgar Drake, who is mysteriously summoned to Burma in 1886 for the express purpose of tuning an Erard grand piano. The pacing is decidedly 19th century, which I admire Mason for pulling off, but the long journey to the mysterious Dr. Anthony Carroll seems to take forever and the book starts to feel like the Burma edition of Lonely Planet. Once Edgar and Dr. Carroll meet, there is some mystery about the man, but there’s not as much tension as one would expect because it’s all jumbled up with Edgar’s rhapsodizing about what a paradise Dr. Carroll lives in and we’re back to Lonely Planet. There’s also a lovely and mysterious Burmese woman who smells like spices and speaks perfect English and touches Edgar’s hand fairly often and gets him all feverish…or was that the malaria? Finally, Things Happen in about the last 20 pages, but it’s all rushed and confusing. I struggled with this book for 6 weeks and felt as if my effort had not been repaid in kind. Even so, I feel a little guilty for not liking the book better, since a couple of people in BOOKLEAVES thought it was wonderful. If you liked the gauzy quality of The English Patient and the journey-into-the-jungle aspect of Heart of Darkness and your preferred reading is travelogues, then you’ll enjoy The Piano Tuner.

6 reviews down, 6 to go.

>A Few More Stray Reviews

>This wraps up everything I read in 2010. Whew.

We Shook The Family Tree – Hildegarde Dolson.

I wrote about this humorous memoir, published in 1946 here but I got parts of it confused with parts of Dolson’s 1955 follow-up, (which I actually like a little bit better) Sorry To Be So Cheerful. Guess what I did soon after that?

Composed – Rosanne Cash.
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.

The Long, Gone Lonesome History of Country Music – Bret Bertholf
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.
Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things – Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee. Stuff starts out with the cautionary tale of the Collyer brothers, whose hoarding in their New York City brownstone led them to a horrific end in 1947. Frost and Steketee present other cases for our consideration, from those who mindfully struggle with parting with even the smallest, most insignificant objects to those who are living in such extreme filth but still believe it’s not their problem, but rather the problem of friends, family or the authorities who find their lifestyle alarming. Animal hoarders are profiled, and also very young children with hoarding tendencies who have been brought to Frost and Steketee by concerned parents. There’s a brief overview of how philosophers throughout history have viewed owning possessions and a look at how and why an increasing number of Americans have hoarding issues of different degrees. Frost and Steketee aren’t judgmental or know-it-all about this disorder. Their willingness to discuss the contradictory theories and raise the questions that still puzzle them is refreshing.

>A Few Stray Reviews

>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.

>Reader’s Block-tober

>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.

>August, 2010: Sweating and Reading and Reading and Sweating

>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.

1. My Sister, My Love – Joyce Carol Oates. When I read an Oates novel, it feels as if my face is pressed too close to everything and Oates’s prose just hammers and hammers away at you. But I keep coming back for more and have, since I was barely out of my teens. Oates’s take on the JonBenet Ramsey case focuses on the shadowy figure of the slightly older brother, Skyler. Oates gives her version of the case a resolution — the same way I always thought perhaps it played out in real life.

2. Royal Flash – George MacDonald Fraser. This was even more fun than the first book! A take-off of The Prisoner of Zenda.

3. Pop. 1280 – Jim Thompson. This novel is a later reworking of The Killer Inside Me, with the same theme of the affable small-town sheriff with a dark side. As always, I’m surprised by the flashes of real hilarity that show up in Thompson’s nightmarish landscapes. In 1981, this book was made into a well-regarded French film called Coup de Torchon with the setting changed from West Texas to a colony in French West Africa.

4. Savage Night – Jim Thompson. Written in 1953, this is one of Thompson’s stranger offerings. A hit man comes to a small college town in the east. He’s a vicious killer on the lam who looks many years younger than his actual age and has a number of infirmities. In spite of the drawbacks to his health and appearance, in typical pulpy Thompson fashion, the babes in the book can’t wait to get him into bed. On the other hand, Thompson’s narrators are unreliable. This book had many disturbing images, but seemed to suffer from slow pacing then finally disintegrates into an incoherent mess that’s meant to pass for surrealism.

5. The Getaway – Jim Thompson. This 1959 novel basically follows the plot of the 1972 movie starring Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw as Doc and Carol McCoy, bank robbers and murderers on the run. The writing is a little sloppy, but the pacing is good and Thompson’s superb storytelling carries the reader along swiftly. Life on the lam is a little grittier for the McCoys — they hide in a hollowed-out manure pile for days in one episode — and reading about their ultimate fate (no warm and folksy Slim Pickens character here!) helps a reader to understand why Stephen King counted Jim Thompson as one of his influences. Of the three Thompson books I read this month, this was my favorite. I still want to read 3 more Thompson novels: A Hell of a Woman (1954), After Dark, My Sweet (1955) and The Grifters (1963).

6. Gone To An Aunt’s: Remembering Canada’s Homes for Unwed Mothers – Anne Petrie. I wrote about this book and 3 others in my Canadian Challenge post.

7. The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz – Mordecai Richler. I raved about this in my Canadian post.

8. You Gotta Have Wa – Robert Whiting. This book about Japanese baseball is really more of a look at cultures colliding. I could really feel for the American baseball players who came to Japan to play and the immense culture shock that awaited them both on the field and off. Just change Japan to Korea and baseball to English teaching and you’ve pretty well got a glimpse into the life of an expat in Asia. I wish there was an updated version of this book; the baseball salaries that were so enticing sound so paltry now. Also, I’d like to see how many gaijin are playing in Japan these days.
9. The Diviners – Margaret Laurence. THE Canadian novel!

10. Piling Blood – Al Purdy. I’m not much for poetry, but I’m glad to discover Al Purdy.
I’m pretty happy with my numbers for August. Returning to work and my busy schedule this semester threatens my quest for 100+, but I’ve signed up for the Readathon on October 9.