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If I Could Just Get It On Virtual Paper

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

I've knocked off books five and six in my attempt to complete the 50 Book Challenge in 2005. The first was a non-fiction volume on depression and its causes. Andrew Solomon's The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression was a fairly harrowing account of the disease and ways of contending with it. The book is especially eye-opening to the suffering of various artists, especially writers such as Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath. The book is at its best when working through accounts of the afflictions of real people, and suffers somewhat when it lapses into history and other long periods of exposition.


I followed that lengthy read up with one that turned out to be surprisingly quick and easy. Christine Schutt's Florida was nominated for the recent National Book Award for fiction, and like the other entrants in the category, it's an original, "literary" means of telling a tale. It's easily the best of the fiction entrants for the award (I do still have one left to read) and is consistently engaging, smart, funny and heartbreaking all at once. I'm honestly disappointed that the voters on the committee somehow didn't see fit to reward this one over the others (though I reserve the right to change my mind once I've read Ideas of Heaven if it's fantastic).

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Welcome to the New Year at BOP. After a trying few weeks, I'm back in the swing of things again and will be updating this space significantly more frequently.

To kick off the year, I'd like to invite readers to join me in the 50 Book Challenge. The premise behind the challenge is simple: read 50 books in the calendar year 2005, then write about them in a blog. For those who are inclined to participate, you can join the 50 Book Challenge group at live journal as linked above and post your results there. In the meantime, in addition to my posts, I'll make sure to link to stuff from other readers/writers who have taken up the challenge as well. I'll start off such linkage with author Neal Pollock, who is up to books three and four.

Thus far, I've also managed four new books in 2004, and am in the very middle of my fifth.

1) A Salty Piece of Land, by Jimmy Buffett

I should probably preface this brief review by stating that I am a pretty big fan of Mr. Buffett. His music is easygoing and sets forward an upbeat state of mind. It's also highly literary, which people who are only familiar with stuff like Margaritaville and Cheeseburger in Paradise don't realize. He's written books prior to this one; Tales From Margaritaville is a book of charming short stories, and Where Is Joe Merchant? is a novel that seems ready-made for a theatrical treatment. A book of memoirs, known as A Pirate Looks at Fifty, also was a gentle read.

Sadly, A Salty Piece of Land was a complete disappointment for me.

The book is a continuation of the adventures of a character Buffett introduced in Tales From Margaritaville. Tully Mars, a rancher who gets fed up with the modern-day changes to his beloved rural Montana, takes off for the beach along with his pony, Mr. Twain. A Salty Piece of Land tells us what happened to the man once he arrived there. What is missing is that complete sense of whimsy that Buffett successfully portrayed both in Tales From Margaritaville and especially Where Is Joe Merchant? In its place is a feeling of self-indulgence and almost of writing just to put words on the page. Nothing really happens in the book, and while that is not a problem in its own right, the fact that Tully isn't ultimately that interesting a character certainly is.

In the end, my primary objection to the book is that it is chock-full of things that it's very obvious Jimmy loves. He talks of sailing and schooners and lighthouses and foreign lands, but he frequently does so in such a clinical, over-involved way that it becomes alienating for a reader who is either unfamiliar with such stuff or not interested. I was looking for fun escapism, but what I got felt much more like a chore.

2) Madeleine Is Sleeping, by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

I admired this book much, much more than I actually liked it. A finalist for 2004's National Book Award for fiction, the book is about a teenage girl who comes of age while asleep. The writing itself feels dreamlike and fantastical, and one is never really quite sure where the real world begins and the dream world ends. Ultimately, the story is a very dark fairy tale - the kind of fairy tale that includes every sort of grimness and grotesquerie. I appreciate Bynum's imaginative attempt to do something unique, and was compelled by her usage of classic fables and stories to create something different. However, I didn't particularly like the main character (though maybe I wasn't supposed to) and the emphasis on the scatological felt just a little bit too Howard Stern for me. Overall, though, I do like it best of the fiction finalists for the National Book Award that I've read so far (The News From Paraguay, by Lily Tuck and Our Kind, by Kate Walbert).

3) The Phantom of the Opera, by Gaston Leroux

After suffering a bit through two books I didn't much like, it was a relief to return to an old, comfortable favorite. I last read this romance/mystery/horror story in 1990, after a visit to Paris left me enamored of the Opera. While in that glorious city, I visited the Opera at least three times. Part of the reason was that it was located right across the street from my hotel, and therefore convenient, but it was also such a marvel of architecture and the arts that I was really drawn to it.

The book, which has been overshadowed by the various film versions and the overblown musical, is truly an underappreciated classic. It's both a reflection of the time it was written and also a masterful, creative mind. Leroux became known for his original ideas in the mystery genre, and his abilities certainly shine through in the book.

4) Replay, by Ken Grimwood

This science-fiction novel is a smart, engaging read. Simply put, it's the story of a man who dies, then finds himself come back to life during his college years. Feeling as though he could live his life better this time around, he sets out to change things for the better.

Revealing much more of the plot is simply to give too much away. It's definitely a book that made me reflect on the choices I've made in my own life, and it also left me inexplicably sad - it's a sobering thought to realize that even on subsequent tries, attempts to make changes for the better might be futile.


 
     


 
 

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