Books Reviews of 2006

File this post under blasts from the past(s). As my 10 years blogiversary approached last year, I was feeling nostalgic about my old, hand-coded website, so of course I looked it up on the Wayback Machine. I was braced for something really amazing, and instead I found a website with roughly ten book reviews and three recipes on it. Below you will find the un-edited book reviews from 2006 aka most of my website back then (spoiler alert: they’re kind of pretentious). I hope someone on the internet finds them useful someday.

The highlight of this set of review, I believe, is that it contains my first reading of Breakfast at Tiffany’s as well as my hilariously waffling on Science Fiction, which I now love. Part one of this series is Book Review of 2003, if you finish this yet crave more, and I also added my annotated bibliography on James’s The American to the site. These are all the book reviews that the vault holds, so I hope you enjoyed them!

A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid

Jamaica Kincaid A Small PlacePublished in 1988 Kincaid’s A Small Place is an unflinchingly angry portrayal of post-colonial, post-slavery life on the island of Antigua. To put it simply: Kincaid is as mad as hell, and she’s not going to take it anymore. If you’re white and can shelve your defensiveness for a moment this book is actually really enjoyable, it’s written in first person and directed at “you,” the British colonizer and/or the fat white tourist.

Kincaid’s sense of humor is wonderfully dark, and there are a lot of moments of humor, if you keep an open mind. Still, at the heart of the matter is the story of Antigua’s decay, left to rot by the British colonizers, with a population that doesn’t vote openly corrupt officials out of office. She openly points out the irony of the celebration of emancipation and the valorization of the Hotel Training School, which teaches the residents of the island to be servants.

In the end, Kincaid concludes that no one is to blame, that after slavery the masters are no longer evil and the slaves are no longer “noble,” but that everyone is merely human. She problematizes the matter, but offers no solutions, which might irritate those concrete sequentials among us. Also, she refers to Columbus, and the explorers in general, so adored in American culture, as “human rubbish” on multiple occasions. You might not agree with Kincaid, but this is one topic someone should be pissed off about, and her unapologetic narrative is about as honest as you can get.

Review December 7, 2006

The American by Henry James

The American by Henry JamesPublished in 1877, The American is one of James’ earliest works and, in my opinion, it shows. There is a lot of debate over what, exactly, the book is: social comedy, realism, or romance. It’s certainly not funny enough to be a comedy, the language is too romantic for realism, and the themes too realistic for romance.

In short, it’s one of James’ “problem novels” (if I may borrow a term from Shakespeare scholarship). Since it was originally serialized the twists in the plot are pretty obvious to readers of later James, but the language is, as it always is in James, impeccable. The most convincing essay I’ve read regarding the debate argued that the novel was a romance throughout, but the argument is a bit of a reach, admittedly, since it involves ignoring the main character’s plot for the latter part of the work.

The novel follows brash American Christopher Newman (a direct, unsubtle reference to Christopher Columbus and the New Man ie: the American) as he sojourns to France to find the perfect wife and “acquire” her. He nearly does this but, since she is old money, her family ends up turning against him and he his left to throw a tantrum, attempt to scandalize them, and then give up for seemingly no reason.

The book isn’t so much bad as it is not good, if that makes any sense, and if you’ve read James I’m sure you can see how his writing could easily go this way. I don’t recommend it for people just reading for entertainment, mostly James scholars, and even so there are better James novels to read before you get to The American. Like I said though, it’s not bad, it would be hard for James to be out and out bad, it’s just not good.

Review November 13, 2006

Maria Chapdelaine by Louis Hemon

Maria Chapdelaine by Louis HemonOriginally published in 1916 this novel is the business in Canada, there is even a municipality named after its eponymous heroine. Hemon was French and only lived in Canada for a short time – he died in 1913 after being hit by a train as he was walking on the tracks with a friend at the age of 32. This is all far more interesting than the novel, but not nearly as beautifully written.

Hailed as the quintessential work of Quebec literature, the novel features beautiful descriptions of nature and the seasons in Canada, as well as humankind’s struggle to reconcile civilized/farming life and a nearly unmanageable landscape. While reading it there are many points at which is it clear that this is not fiction from the United States, but it’s rather short and entirely worth picking up. The character development is rather shallow in some respects, but you end up liking many characters despite this, and Hemon definitely offers a different perspective on the adolescent girl coming-of-age story that audiences in the US are quite familiar with.

Review October 16, 2006

Ragged Dick by Horatio Alger

Ragged Dick by Horatio AlgerHoratio Alger wrote over a hundred “dime novels” in the mid 1800s about “diamond in the rough” street urchins going from “rags to riches” via “pluck and luck.” Why so many quotes? Because Alger contributed a lot to the American myth of the self-made man through these novels, which rivaled Mark Twain’s in popularity at the time of their publication.

In this particular novel, the eponymous “Ragged” Dick, (Richard) Hunter, manages to drag himself out of a life of boot blackery and maintain his integrity the whole way up. It’s a little over a hundred pages, absurdly easy to read, and quite sweet, if not terribly dated. Published (and presumably written) after Charles Dickens’ Oliver TwistRagged Dick is like a much less depressing, much more enjoyable version of the infamous novel. If you prefer another comparison, it’s like Annie for boys, or Sister Carrie for boys and sans Naturalism.

Oddly in my American Literature class there was a lot of reaction against it, which I was rather amused by. Reading it you have to keep in mind the intended audience and that its voyage through time has not been an easy one, if you’re not a good “mock reader” then don’t bother, you’ll never get past the fact that Central Park is still under construction.

Review September 19, 2006

The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff

The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin HoffThis book is such a classic, one of those books you get recommended to you a dozen times and have probably read at least once. Well, I recommended it to my friend Gene only to realize that I somehow misplaced my copy, and I ended up buying it and re-reading it since I didn’t remember it all that well.

Aside from one chapter being, in my opinion, slightly anti-intellectual, I’m very fond of this book. The way it’s written, a back and forth between the author and the residents of the Hundred Acre Woods, is very well done (for the most part, there are a few points where it’s a little thin) making for an enjoyable narrative. The use of Pooh-themes like Bisy Backson and Cottlestone Pie are incorporated beautifully into a very simple, accessible, reader friendly explanation of Taoism. Also, Hoff does all his own translations of Taoist parables, which I really respect, and the interjection of them amid original Pooh illustrations is really lovely. The book isn’t merely “cute” either, which one might expect just hearing about the premise, it’s really quite good and completely worth reading (or re-reading, in my case).

Review April 30, 2006

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

My boyfriend gave me this book back in 2001 but I never got around to reading it, then suddenly I felt like picking it up and read it in two sittings. Having just re-watched the movie version I realize that not only is so much different, but so much is lost. The novel (or novella, really) is hypnotic and Holiday “Holly” Golightly is so much better in her original form it’s striking. Capote’s original version is much racier as well, which almost makes it feel more authentic. Entirely worth reading, I’m honestly a little embarrassed it took me nearly five years to get around to it.

Review January 5, 2006

Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

I adore Kurt Vonnegut and Sirens of Titan is easily in my top five for him (well he just has so darn many novels). It’s a bit science fiction-ey for my taste, but he’s so brilliant that I don’t even care and barely even notice.

It’s sweet and honest and, in a way, terribly sad. I always find myself crying at the end, even though there’s no sort of Shakespearean tragedy style ending to the thing, but just because the characters become so amazingly real you end up loving them, despite the preposterous premise. Beatrice is so repulsively charming, or perhaps charmingly repulsive, too. Hats off to you, space baby!

Review December 26, 2005

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