9. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie
I always heard such rave reviews about this book when I was working at Barnes and Noble but for some reason never read it until now. I can’t say that I share the rave reviews. It’s a rather small book, under 200 pages with the pages themselves being very small. I think I didn’t care for it that much because I didn’t feel like there was much depth to it. The story centers around 2 teenage boys in China who are sent to a small town in the country for “re-education”. They also keep in contact with another boy who they knew who is placed in a nearby village. They discover that he has a stash of Western books that they eagerly want to get their hands on. They also befriend the daughter of a highly revered tailor, who is the title “little Chinese seamstress.” The book does provide fodder for an interesting commentary on the importance and freedom of knowledge, and I think it will make for an interesting discussion at the book club I read it for. However, the lack of depth really didn’t make me care about any of the characters. The narrator, who is one of the boys, doesn’t even get a name. That always bugs me when I’m reading books. So I found it really hard to get invested in what was happening. I give it a 5 out of 10.
8. Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert
This book is a sort of memoir/travelogue. After a nasty divorce the author decides to spend four months living in each of the countries talked about in the book. In hearing other people talk about this book I remember a lot of people saying that they didn’t care for her writing about one of the countries, but I can’t remember which one it is. If I had to choose I would say India though. In Italy even though she is probably at her most vulnerable and depressed she gives great descriptions of just relaxing and enjoying Italy and its food and language. This section also gives the most background information on her past and her decision to undergo the journey.
Indonesia is also marked with interesting descriptions of the people she meets and information about the country and its people and customs. However, in India she spends the entire four months living in an ashram so the whole section is spent pretty much talking about her experiences meditating and trying to find spiritual enlightenment. I didn’t completely hate it, but it definitely didn’t grab me the way the other two sections did. For the author it might have been more beneficial for her to remain at the ashram for all 4 months instead of the 6 weeks she originally planned, but I think the reader suffered by not getting to experience life in actual India.
I give it a 7 out of 10.
7. The School on Heart Content’s Road by Carolyn Chute
As if reading Apples and Oranges wasn’t bad enough I get to follow it up with this horrible book. It is a novel set in some small town called Egypt, Maine. It’s just plain boring. Unless I guess you’re really into militias in which case even then it’s probably really boring. Basically there is some compound led by some prophet, who doesn’t think he’s God or anything but hates the government and creates a co-op settlement where all these people live and subsist. He also has a bunch of wives, which is really neither here nor there as far as the story is concerned. There’s also a bunch of other militias in this town because apparently it is full of a bunch of anti-government malcontents who love guns or something. I really have no idea.
One of the other main characters is a 6 year old girl who winds up going to live in the settlement after she basically narcs out her mother to some drug officer who comes to speak at her school because she is mad her mom wouldn’t buy her some skirt. She is an entirely unbelievable character who acts nothing like a real 6 year old would and the author trying to pretend that what she was doing and saying wasn’t well beyond her years by making her mispronounce stuff was just cloying.
The other one is a 15 year old boy who moves back to Egypt, ME with his mother and into his older brother’s house where he somehow gets caught up in one of the militias and then winds up living on the property of the settlement after his brother kicks him out for basically no reason.
The whole thing makes no sense and nothing ever really happens. Most of this book is spent on talking about forming militias and anti-government diatribe. It wasn’t so bad in the beginning, but it got tedious pretty quickly. The only reason I finished it was because it was a Christmas present and I kind of felt obligated. I give it a 1 out of 10.
6. Apples and Oranges: My Brother and Me, Lost and Found by Marie Brenner
This book was a memoir of sorts. Based on the title and some vague commentary throughout the book I’m guessing what it was supposed to be about was the relationship between the author and her brother. It wasn’t really. Yes they both appeared in the book and their somewhat peculiar relationship both strained and cold yet oddly close in that they were in constant contact was referred to, but I really never got a real sense of their relationship. I didn’t necessarily feel like it was the focus of the book either. In addition to talk of their relationship there were also references to other various family members both immediate and distant. I had a hard time keeping track of who they all were or why I should care. Even the author seemed to feel this way as for most of these people she kept emphasizing their kind of B-class fame like hanging out with Frida Kahlo and such. I guess if they are kind of historical pseudo-celebrities I’m supposed to care. Also it really bugged me that from the beginning of the book you know that the brother is ill with some sort of disease but the author refuses to name what it is until about halfway through the book. There are many references to illness and treatment prior to that and I found it more than a bit ridiculous that she seemed intent on not revealing what it was, particularly after you find out that it’s just a form of cancer. Nothing exotic and nothing worth hiding. I give this book a 2 out of 10.
5. Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach for America by Donna Foote
This book follows several first year Teach for America members teaching at Locke High School in Los Angelos during the 2005-2006 school year. In addition to covering the experiences of the teachers, the it delves deep into the history and ethos of Teach for America. I’m a sucker for books about education to underprivileged students, so I ate this book right up. I also found the information on Teach for America to be interesting as I know realize I didn’t know that much about the organization other than that people signed up for 2 year stints to teach in underprivileged schools. I read several blogs written by Teach for America members, so it gives me a much better perspective on what they are doing. The book also does a good job of presenting the arguments for and against the Teach for America program. If you like books by Jonothan Kozol I highly recommend this one. I give it an 8 out of 10.
4. What is the What by Dave Eggars
This book is kind of interesting in that it is fictional, but based loosely on the life of a real person. The story follows one of the “Lost Boys” of Sudan through his childhood in his small village in Sudan and eventually refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. The stories from Sudan are interspersed with tales about his life in Atlanta after he is brought to the United States as one of the lost boys.
Parts of the book are really sad and exemplify how hard it is for people living in these worn torn countries and how hard their lives are even if they do get to leave.
I was really enjoying the book at the beginning, but somewhere about halfway through I just stopped caring. I felt like there were too many superfluous stories thrown in, which I think I would have minded less if it was a memoir instead of fiction. In that case I would have thought well he’s just trying to relay his story, but since it was fiction I just felt there was no point in them being there. At over 500 pages the book was way too long and a lot of it I think could have been cut without losing the message of the book.
I also wish that the book had provided me with a better understanding of the conflict in Sudan. It did sort of address some of the issues that led to the war, but not in a way that really made me comprehend anything. I also still wonder how the conflict talked about the book is related to what is currently going on in Darfur because I get the feeling they are not totally connected. Of course this is my own ignorance blaming a fiction book for not making me more informed. Perhaps I should a non-fiction book on the conflict to get myself more up to speed. As I was reading I was just hoping to get a clearer picture of why stuff was going on, but I never really did. It’s probably too much to ask though for a fiction book to enlighten me on a conflict that seems to go back forever.
I give it a 5 out of 10. I probably would have rated it higher if it hadn’t dragged on for so darn long.
3. The White Tiger: A Novel by Aravind Adiga
The 2008 Man Booker Prize winning novel. This was a very quick read. The book follows the life of an Indian man who is hired as a driver for a wealthy man from his village, whom he eventually murders. Every review I read mentioned the murder and I kept thinking they were giving something away, but the protagonist tells you himself in the first couple of pages. So I’m not giving spoiling anything by telling you that. Aside from the plot, the book seems to be a commentary on status and social class in India. I’m reading this book for one of my book clubs this month, and it will be interesting to see what people have to say about it. I give it a 6 out of 10.
2. Blood Mattters: A Journey Along the Genetic Frontier by Masha Gessen
The author examines ever advancing world of genetics. She focuses on her own struggle to decide whether to have her breasts and ovaries removed after she tests positive for a gene that indicates she is likely to develop either breast or ovarian cancer. She also delves into many other areas related to genetic testing and medicine including why genes for some diseases tend to be found more frequently in some groups such as the Amish or Ashkenazi Jews. I found it to be a very interesting book that raises a lot of questions about the implications of genetic testing. I give it a 7 out of 10.
1. The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb
I’ve been waiting for this book for about 9 years, which is apparently how long it took the author to write it based on the afterward. Lamb’s last book, I Know This Much is True, which was written 9 years ago is one my favorite books. So I’ve been looking forward to seeing another book by him for years. Needless to say I was very excited when I saw that this book was being released.
The main story follows a fictional couple who live through the massacre at Columbine high school and the aftermath that follows them through their lives as a result of going through this experience. There are also many side stories incorporated into the book with peripheral characters as well as members of other generations of the main character’s family.
I didn’t like this book as much as I liked I Know This Much is True, but I still really enjoyed it. I usually dislike books that try to play off of real life tragic events, which is why I still refuse to read or watch anything that plays of 9/11. This book very much played of Columbine and to a lesser extent Hurricane Katrina, so I wasn’t thrilled with that but it didn’t bother me as much as I might have expected.
I do think there were certain parts of the book that could have been excised. The book was over 700 pages long. I didn’t really care about the sections of the book devoted to the main character’s great-great-great grandmother. They definitely could have been left out of the book without affecting the story at all in my opinion and their elimination would have reduced the book down to a more manageable size.
Despite it’s faults I really did enjoy the book as evidenced by the fact that I finished all 700+ pages in about a day. I give it an 8 out of 10.