Book Reviews

Here is where I’ll review books I’ve read–some recent and some not–but all, in my opinion, worth either recommending or ridiculing.

Let’s hope this doesn’t come back to bite me someday.

(Note: I’ve decided to begin adding my most recent reads to the top of the list so you don’t have to scroll down if you’ve been here before.)

Ellen Foster – Kaye Gibbons

Ms. Gibbons wrote one my favorite books, On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon, so I thought it was time to read her debut novel. I will admit that I struggled with the first twenty pages or so, primarily because of the unique narrator voice. It’s written from the perspective of Ellen, a southern girl who’s packed more pain and trauma in her eleven years than most adults I know. She’s not well-educated, and relates her story in a blunt, conversational tone — just different enough to be a bit off-putting at first. But I’m so glad I kept reading. Ellen Foster is one of those rare books that can make you laugh and cry almost simultaneously. The real miracle, though, is the hope in Ellen herself which no degree of hardship manages to kill. I don’t want to go into detail — the story is economically told, so if I tried to explain anything more here, I’d blow several plot points within a sentence or two. Just read it.

So Brave, Young and HandsomeLeif Enger

This is a nice book, with an intricate plot, great turns-of-phrase, and intriguing characters (nobody writes a villain like Mr. Enger).  But it is definitely not Peace Like a River.  I cannot imagine the pressure of following up a great first novel with novel #2 (though I might not mind it, since it implies having published a “great first novel”).  Perhaps that’s why Harper Lee never published a novel after To Kill a Mockingbird.  But I fell so deeply in love with Reuben, Swede, Jeremiah, and Davey from Peace, it was a let-down to not find them, or their equals, in Handsome.  And to find myself, instead, in the head of a whiny, rather boring narrator.  I believe the book would have been vastly improved if it were written either in third-person, or from the perspective of a different narrator.

It is still worth reading–for the action, the lovely language, and the wonderful setting/time period.  Just don’t go into it looking for Reuben.

The Ice Queen – Alice Hoffman

After dozens of people insisted that I “try” Alice Hoffman, based on my affection for Anne Tyler, I finally did it.

And I don’t get it.

The narrator, a woman whose mother dies in an accident early on in the book–right after the little girl makes a wish that she believes is the cause of that death–is intolerably narcissistic, pessimistic, self-absorbed, and whiny.  Some of the plot points in the book stretch the limits of credulity, and I wasn’t sold enough as a reader to want to go along.

If the entire book were as lovely as a scene toward the end, in which she watches thousands of monarch butterflies with a loved one who is dying, then this review would be entirely different.  Alas, it is not.

After I slogged through this book–and I do mean slogged, as I compulsively checked the page number as I went along–I looked up the reviews on Amazon.  Yes, I should have done that before.  Anyway, there were widely variant opinions on this book, and those who agreed with me did say that many of her other books are better.  So I think I’ll give her one more chance with The River King.  Stay tuned…

Water for Elephants – Sara Gruen

Overview: This book takes place in two time periods, which the author handles masterfully.  In the here-and-now, Jacob is “90 or 93.  One or the other.”  He’s in a nursing home, and not happy about it.  Often, he goes back in his memory to the Great Depression, when he traveled with a train circus (Barnum and Bailey it was not).

The writing is beautiful, the emotions in Jacob (particularly in the present-day sections) are poignant, and every character (even of the animal variety) is exquisitely drawn.  And Ms. Gruen managed to sell me on present tense, which I would never have imagined possible.  (Her reason for this: Jacob is genuinely confused at times about what time period he exists in, so the reader is carried along with that simple use of present tense throughout the narrative.)

Problem:  as with Memory of Running, there are explicit sections that rule out any recommendation I could have offered, particularly to any past or present students of mine who might be reading this!  In fact, where Memory of Running might wind up as rated R movie, if they were to leave all the explicit scenes in the movie version of Water for Elephants, I honestly believe it would have to be NC-17.  (And yes, both of these books are currently being made into movies.)

On the one hand, these scenes make more sense to me than the scenes in Memory of Running, because the environment of the train circus was truly lascivious and even grotesque.  However, I am a proponent of leaving things to the reader’s imagination, and Ms. Gruen is apparently not.

The Memory of Running Ron McLarty

Overview: A self-proclaimed loser (obese, alcoholic, and desperately lonely) loses his parents in one fatal car crash; he then discovers that his long-lost sister’s body has shown up in a Los Angeles morgue.  He embarks somewhat accidentally on a cross-country bicycle journey from his home in Providence, Rhode Island, all the way to L.A. to retrieve his sister.

This book is frustrating.  Because in many respects it is excellent, and one of the best books I have read.  The dialog in particular is phenomenal.  And who doesn’t appreciate a book with lines like this:  “You never get over a family.”

However, this is also a book that I cannot recommend because of explicit content.  Not only explicit, but unnecessary.

To be clear, I have a fairly high tolerance for certain types of content (as evidenced by my recommendation of Larry McMurtry’s books).  But only when that content is essential to the plot.  Using McMurtry’s books as an example again, he could not have accurately portrayed life in the West for early Texas Rangers without including violence and sex.  It would have been inaccurate reporting and it would have crippled the stories.

In the case of The Memory of Running, I found the vast majority of the sexual references and content to be wholly unnecessary, if not a complete distraction.  There are two scenes in which the events themselves are in fact important to the plot–in both cases, they are pivotal points in the lives of the characters.  But even in those two scenes, McLarty goes way too far and crosses the line into explicitness.

Perhaps McLarty would say that I’m simply not the audience for this book.  But I would disagree.  Because I thoroughly fell in love with the characters–even those that I detested at the beginning of the book.  And I so wanted to enjoy the entire book without reservation.  McLarty’s inclusion of gratuitous, nonessential elements robbed me of that experience.

The Velveteen Rabbit – Margery Williams

Absolutely perfect. Even though it takes eons to read it out loud to my daughters, I am still consistently thrilled when they choose it.

Peace Like a River – Leif Enger

A modern classic. I guarantee that my young daughters will be reading this for high school classes, even though it was published, I believe, in 2003 or 2004.

To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

Well, duh. This book also has the distinction of being one of those rare books that translated perfectly to screen. (Oh, how I love Gregory Peck.)

Lonesome Dove – Larry McMurtry

Not for the faint of heart. Or stomach. Seriously, if you consider reading this based on its presence on this list, please contact me about it first. You might hate me halfway in.

Dead Man’s Walk – Larry McMurtry

The prequel to Lonesome Dove. I was a bit disappointed. It feels like McMurtry didn’t put as much effort into the craft of writing, riding instead on the well-deserved popularity of the Lonesome Dove characters, Gus and Call. I was thrilled to be back in their world, particularly because they’re young’uns just starting out with the Texas Rangers, and it’s fun to see glimpses of who they become as the old men in Lonesome Dove. I did miss the quality of writing that made Lonesome Dove such an experience to read–and earned it the Pulitzer Prize. I would only recommend this book to those who have read Lonesome Dove and want to hang out with Gus and Call again. Which, I’m guessing, would be any and every person who has read Lonesome Dove.

Gilead Marilynne Robinson

Oh, my goodness. This book is singular. There is nothing to compare it to. I have always been one to read slowly when I love the writing, which is why I read less books than most book lovers do–I don’t get through the good ones very quickly, and I don’t waste my time with not-so-good ones. But with this book, I found myself rereading phrases, paragraphs, whole pages, over and over again. I even thought about committing some of it to memory. It’s that lovely. I guess I haven’t said what it’s about yet: it’s written as a journal from the perspective of an elderly, dying preacher, addressed to his very young son. He alternately philosophizes, reminisces, and expresses his love for his son and his young wife. You have to read it. Really.

The Scarlet Pimpernel – Baroness Emma Orczy

I read this classic novel in the fall of 2007, when I assigned it to my tenth grade literature class.  On paper, it sounds very stuffy and boring–the author is a baroness, for heaven’s sake. But I found it to be quite delightful! The most intriguing thing to me thus far is the narrative perspective. It starts off in third person omniscient, but not in a detached way whatsoever. The narrator is sarcastic, ironic, and slightly snarky in parts, even though the he is utterly faceless and not a character in the book. But right around chapter seven, the perspective zeros in on the main female character, Lady Marguerite Blakeney. There are a few instances later in the book that the reader hops briefly into the mind of another character, but for the most part, it’s all Marguerite. Aside from all that English class gobble-de-gook, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It was funny, passionate, and extremely plot-driven considering its position on so many high school reading lists. I think my students will love it. Really. I swear.

The Good Earth – Pearl S. Buck

This was the second required book for my tenth graders, and, having read it over one long weekend, I was really pleased that I chose it. (Yes, I chose two books that I had not read. My high school English teachers had horrible taste for the most part and assigned atypical books, so there are a lot of classics that I am still getting around to reading. Also, I tend to assign books that I have always wanted to read myself. There’s a method to my madness.) This book was the perfect counterpoint to The Scarlet Pimpernel. Where TSP focuses on plot and on proper language, The Good Earth focuses on character development (masterfully) and the beauty and diction and cadence of words. The plot, of course, is there, but it is most definitely not a swash-buckling romp like TSP. It’s wonderfully paced throughout, taking Wang Lung, a farmer in pre-revolutionary China, from his anxiety-laden marriage day through the rest of his tumultuous, prosperous, heart-breaking life. Don’t miss this book. It is a beautiful work of literature, and its depiction of the human heart–with all of its flaws and yearnings–is astonishingly accurate.

As I Lay Dying William Faulkner

So, I got busy and didn’t get to finish Light in August in time to turn it back in to the library. To be specific, I tried to renew it, but couldn’t because someone else had placed a hold on it. To feed my newfound addiction to Faulkner, I checked out As I Lay Dying. The best word for this book is: astonishing. It follows a family as they cart the body of their mother/wife to her birthplace for burial, granting her last wish. During their journey, they face one obstacle after another, handling each one in their decidedly odd manner. Of particular interest are the reactions of the relatively normal people they come across along the way.

The most astonishing thing about this book is that Faulkner writes in the first person throughout, but switches narrators from chapter to chapter. Confusing, you might think, but not in the hands of a master. First of all, each chapter is titled after the name of the current narrator. But once you’ve had a sampling of each of the narrators, the voices are so incredibly distinct, the chapter titles become unnecessary. There is no way for the reader to confuse Darl with Jewel, let alone Cash. The most difficult chapters to read, for me, were those narrated by Vardaman, the youngest son of the family. But once I realized how very young he was, they became easier. You might have heard of one of his chapters, in fact, it being notorious. The entire chapter consists of these five words: “My mother is a fish.”

This book is not easy to read; nor is the subject matter comfortable. But it is, as I said, astonishing, and well worth the effort.

A Separate Peace John Knowles

A lovely book that explores the complexity of our own minds, emotions, motivations, and capacity for evil. This book is set in 1942, at a boys’ boarding school in New England. The narrator is a former student of the school, having returned fifteen years after that fateful year to revisit significant happenings and relate them to the reader. The story centers on the narrator’s friendship with his roommate, Phineas. The author, John Knowles, treats shocking events and emotions with graceful language, which lends a pleasant sort of eeriness to the text.

Of Mice and Men John Steinbeck

A favorite of mine, this book has earned its place high on virtually every “important novels” list. The language may offend some readers, but it is hardly gratuitous — the characters are itinerant workers who live in a bunkhouse, so they aren’t likely to use words like “golly.”

A slim volume, elegantly written, it is easy (and best) to read in one long afternoon. Steinbeck is a genius with setting and mood. And the characters are so well-drawn, I find myself thinking of them as if they’re real people, even days after I’ve finished the book.

I’d rather not outline the plot, since it would be difficult to do so without ruining key points for the reader.

The Glass Castle Jeannette Walls

The Glass Castle is a memoir, written by the long-time gossip columnist for MSNBC. I am glad that I did not know of her current occupation prior to reading her memoir, since I might not have given the book a chance.

There are two ways to look at this book. You could see it as a depressing chronicle of a dysfunctional family (I don’t throw that word around: it fits perfectly here), and you could get angry at the parents and wind up throwing the book against a wall. Or you could see it as an amazing triumph of spirit, as the kids rise above the ridiculousness of their childhoods.

Ms. Walls writes cleanly, simply, and with an intriguing knack for showing two perspectives at once: the clear-eyed perspective of an adult who can see exactly what was wrong (and crazy and dangerous) about her upbringing; and the innocent, trusting perspective of herself as a child, who loved her parents dearly and knew of no reason to doubt them.

The Whistling Season – Ivan Doig

Doig tells the story, set in 1909 Montana, of a family of three boys and their father (they’ve recently lost their mother), their eccentric housekeeper and her even more eccentric brother, and the fascinating little world of the town’s one-room schoolhouse.

Taken as a whole, this book is wonderful. I had a hard time getting into the book (and so did my mother, when I loaned it to her). I am glad I stuck it out, and I am glad my mother listened to me and did the same. It is not a fast-paced, thrilling read. It’s not supposed to be. But it evokes nostalgia without sentimentality, and the language alone is worth reading. I had not read anything by Doig before, but I look forward to doing so now.

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter – Kim Edwards

This one’s a toughie. I know it sold like hotcakes, but I have to admit that it was not my favorite. First of all, I expected a lot more content about the Down’s Syndrome daughter — she was, after all, the title character. Ultimately, it seemed like a very long book that focused mostly on people mulling things over.

The writing was lovely. I wish Edwards had delved more deeply into the lives (not just the thoughts) of the characters than she did.

What I’m Reading Now:

Light in August – William Faulkner

This is one of those books that make my attempts to write fiction seem utterly ridiculous–even the fact that I try to do it seems laughable. Faulkner is a wonder. How anyone could have such complete, almost magical mastery over words is mind boggling. (Note: I haven’t yet finished this one — see the review for As I Lay Dying.)

Housekeeping – Marilynne Robinson

The first novel by the author of Gilead (see above).  It’s really lovely.  I had a bit of a hard time getting into it, largely because I had just finished the break-neck pace of Water for Elephants, but also because I had just spent a week preaching against the evils of narrative summary to my Creative Writing class, and this book is largely narrative summary.  But it is narrative summary done well.  Ms. Robinson’s characters are distinctive, knowable, and heart-breakingly fragile.

On My List:

The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini

The Secret Life of Bees – Sue Monk Kidd

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon


2 thoughts on “Book Reviews

  1. Since you loved Gilead, you ought to read Marilynne’s first novel Housekeeping (okay, how do I italicize?). According to Time magazine, Housekeeping is “A modern classic that brilliantly portrays the impermanence of all things, especially beauty and happiness.” I couldn’t say it better. Housekeeping is a wonderful novel.

    You are right on with your Lonesome Dove and Dead Man’s Walk analysis. I’ve read many of McMurty’s westerns and Lonesome Dove is the only one that rises to the level of brilliant (something exceedingly rare for westerns!). Robert Duvall, who portrayed Gus in the Lonesome Dove miniseries, often says Gus is America’s Hamlet. I tend to agree. Gus is Don Corleone, Scarlett O’hara, Holden Caulfield, Atticus Finch in cowboy boots. You won’t forget Gus.

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