Extremely Quick Book Reviews

The Children’s Book A.S. Byatt
Set in the years before World War I, this book chronicles the lives of a group of children related to Olive Wellwood, a children’s novelist. By turn family drama, historical fiction, and disturbing fantasy, this meaty book rewards perseverance and has one of the most emotional (and shocking) endings I’ve ever read.
Pros: The plot is extremely well crafted; only at the end did I understand some of the subtext of the beginning chapters. Again, one of the best endings I have ever read. Although it is not consistent, some of the characters are deeply and realistically developed. It never feels underwritten, everything gets enough space.
Cons: It’s a hefty 688 pages (2.2 pounds, according to Amazon) which isn’t bad in itself, but I feel like some sections could be tighter. The historical fiction is a little weak, there are a couple sections which read as a long list of names, places and events. Perhaps I would connect with it more if I were English.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian Sherman Alexie
This YA novel takes place during part of a school year as Arnold (Junior) Spirit transitions from his Washington reservation school to the white school in the nearby town. He has to deal with family, community, personal relationships, athletics, and good old-fashioned nerdidom.
Pros: Junior has a strong and memorable voice. The book reads quickly. Alexie does a good job of portraying the difficulties of code-switching between two different societies. Extremely funny.
Cons: Slightly underwritten. I wish that it was a little longer, or that Alexie had dug in a little further.

A Lost Lady Willa Cather
Somewhere in between Henry James’ Daisy Miller and The Sun Also Rises, this is a novella set in frontier Colorado at the turn of the century. Spanning several decades, it is a long examination of the relationship between a young frontier boy and his infatuation with the titular lady, the most elegant and glamorous resident of the small town. Once her husband dies, however, a different side of the woman emerges, one much different from the idealized lady that the boy –now a man– imagines…
Pros: Good quality prose. Cather presents two strong and opposed sides of the lady and pulls them off with great style. Very antiquated and un-PC presentations of Indians and black people are given, as far as I can tell, without a hint of irony or critique, but Cather does a good job of showing the beauty and simplicity of the frontier West before it was ‘ruined’ by development and increasing population. Answers the question of what Daisy Miller might have become had she lived, married an Army veteran and moved to the sticks.
Cons: Although the lady is well written, our protagonist and narrator is both kind of bland and also removed from the action for the second half of the novel. There is a case to be made for the silent protagonist, however it is not made here.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time Mark Haddon
Christopher Boone is a 15 year old English autistic boy. He discovers a heinous crime, tries to solve it, and finds out that the roots of the crime extend further into his life than he bargained for.
Pros: Haddon uses interesting and unconventional prose to great effect, like Jonathan Safran Foer (as an example of another good writer. See also Dave Eggers, for bad). Christopher is a narrator unlike any other, and his inability to use metaphor or lie means that the plot is tight and also makes poignant moments feel more real when they could feel trite.
Cons: I wish it was longer, but only because it was so good. It’s probably best exactly like it is.

The Blind Side Michael Lewis
As I wrote earlier, I was somewhat bothered by the excerpt of this book in the New York Times Magazine. I thought I owed it to Michael Lewis to read the book. I was happily surprised to find that most of the concerns I had about the article are not found in the book. In fact, the portrayal of the Tuohys are much more nuanced than in the article, and the description of Oher’s time at his high school is far less of a Cinderella story. On the other hand, this does make the changes made for the movie that much more disgusting. Also missing from the article/movie are the great sections on the history of the left tackle position and football strategy which tie Oher’s story into the history of the game.
Pros: Amazing story dealt with fairly; journalistic style makes it a gripping read.
Cons: By the end of the book I was sick of the Tuohys, Ole Miss, people from Memphis, football people and Southerners. The edition I bought had a picture of Sandra Bullock on the cover. I still could have used more of this story from Michael’s perspective.

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