2011 Challenges, 2011 TBR Challenge, Book Review, Fiction, Literature

Review: The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty

The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty

Final Verdict: 3.0 out of 4.0

YTD: 68


Plot/Story:

3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

The Optimist’s Daughter is primarily a story about place, position, and values, although it does also touch on familial relationships and dealing with grief and the lost past.  The main character, Laurel, is a calm, level-headed, independent woman – strong and filled with common sense and class.  She comes home to tend to her father, who must undergo retinal surgery.  The father’s young wife, Fay, is Laurel’s polar opposite – naïve, vain, vulgar, selfish and quite stupid.  Laurel is Mississippian, while Fay and her family are proud Texans – and the portrayal of Mississippians as genteel and classy, while Texans are crass and dirty, is impossible to miss.   The novel’s primary focus seems to be an examination of regional culture (with clear implications for and against those territories which are explored); however, Fay the Texan is so unabashedly stupid and Laurel the Mississippian so prominently “good,” that the didactic overshadows much of what could have been implicit and thereby more entertaining than sermonized.


Characterization:

3 – Characters well developed.

In general, the minor characters and those on the periphery (particularly those who are deceased prior to the start of the story, so are referred to in flashbacks/conversation, etc.) are the saving grace for this category.  The main character – the Judge and “Optimist”- is portrayed simultaneously as hero and victim, as godlike and wholly human.  In remembrance, he is eulogized as a giant of the community, but his own daughter remembers him much differently.   Welty touches on an interesting and honest aspect of human nature, here, but it is the only truly complex (and still too plainly delivered, in my opinion) element of characterization.  The other main characters, Fay and Laurel in particular, are starkly contrasted and without subtlety, making them rather uninteresting.  Laurel’s “bridesmaids” – the southern women- are funny, so also make the story more palatable. 


Prose/Style:

3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

Welty’s prose is clear and uncomplicated, which mirrors her story quite well.  The dialogue is handled nicely, as are the flashbacks – some of the most touching moments of the book are the segments wherein Laurel reminisces about her mother and (briefly) her deceased husband.  The story reads well because Welty tells it well – and this comes across in her writing.  The novel was originally published as a short story – later expanded- and this comes across at times.   As a short story, the dichotomous characters and opinionated (almost grotesque) regional descriptors may have worked much better, but as no complexity seemed to be added to the story when it lengthened, the book often comes across as a really long short story, which is in a way antithetical. 


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.

3 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the Story.

There are clearly themes that Welty is exploring here:  Southern regionalism, North (Chicago) and South (Mississippi/West Virginia), Duty to Parents, Stepmother (young bride) syndrome, Selfishness, Memory (undue homage), and even the idea of Optimism itself.  Perhaps the most interesting (or confusing) element of the story – and the one to really consider, is this latter idea of optimism.  What does it mean to be optimistic?  Who in this story is The Optimist?  We would assume (and are flat-out told, at one point) that the old Judge is the optimist and, when he passes, the duty of the optimist falls upon his daughter (hence the book’s title); however, very few instances of optimism are ever demonstrated by either of these two characters.  So, we think about Laurel’s mother – who died years before the Judge.  Perhaps, through Laurel’s memory, we will discover that Laurel’s mother was the true optimist of the family.  Not quite.  This leaves Fay – the one who tries to “scare the judge into living.”  Was she really so naïve as to believe such a thing would work?  Is Welty equating optimism, then, to naïvete – to a juvenile way of viewing the world?  And here the real story begins…..


Suggested Reading for:

Age Level: High School, Adult

Interest: Death and Dying, Family, Grief, Widowhood, American South, 1960s America, Individuality, Memory, Nostalgia, Class, Caste/Societal Position, Regional Relations.

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2011 Challenges, 2011 TBR Challenge, Book Review, Fantasy, Fiction, Jasper Fforde, metafiction, Mystery, Science-Fiction

Review: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

YTD: 67

Plot/Story:


3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

Thursday Next, Special Ops LiteraTec Agent, has a secret or two.  The biggest secret, perhaps, is that, as a young girl, she once met Mr. Rochester inside Bronte’s Jane Eyre.  In doing so, she changed the story slightly, making the meeting scene between Jane and Mr. Rochester slightly more interesting than it had been before.  Now, decades later, Mr. Rochester leaves the book to visit her – when she is in grave danger.  Hunted by and hunting the formidable Acheron Hades, the world’s most dangerous and devious criminal, Thursday Next comes to realize that she and Mr. Rochester are not the only ones who can jump from reality to fiction.  Acheron himself soon learns this secret – and it is up to Thursday to stop him before he destroys some of the world’s greatest pieces of literature forever, by visiting the original manuscripts and kidnapping their main characters.  After a beloved Dickens character is murdered, Thursday is given all the power and money the government can grant her, but will it be enough to stop Hades?  And who, of the many possible options (Thackeray? Shakespeare? Austen?), will be the next target? 


Characterization:

3 – Characters well developed.

Characterization is definitely a strong point for Fforde.  What makes this book stand out in regards to characterization is the fact that, not only does Fforde create his own characters, good and bad, who each have their own histories, relationships, quirks, etc. – but he also must re-imagine some of literature’s most beloved and well-known characters, making them believable in regards to their original works, but also relative to this story’s contemporary plot.  Fortunately, Fforde manages this quite well, and the outcome (Dickens and Bronte characters interacting with people from the 21st Century and 21st-Century folks visiting Victorian England?) is quite delightful.  Some of the minor characters, such as Thursday’s father and Bertha Mason, did tend to overshadow some of the primary characters at times, which was a bit odd.  Thursday, the main character and narrator, was one of the least empathetic, in my opinion, which made it at times difficult to enjoy the story (because, although the reader roots for her as the “good guy,” she is not exactly a champion).  Still, the characters’ stories overall are interesting, as are their histories (many are connected through distant pasts while others are new acquaintances who just happen to have excellent chemistry).  Hades is evil for evil’s sake, as are his henchmen, which is admittedly difficult for me to swallow (I like explanations for my bad guys!) but it works fine in this case, particularly since the primary character, at least, is flawed (if the good guy was purely good in addition to the bad guy being entirely evil, I would not have been able to enjoy the story nearly as much).


Prose/Style:

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

The best element of this story is the prose and style.  The story itself is a bit odd.  It is a mystery and a thriller.  It’s contemporary literature and it’s a throwback to the classics.  It’s fiction and it’s meta-fiction.  It is science fiction and realism.  What holds together all this craziness?  The writing.  Fforde is clever enough to realize that, with everything he is attempting here, a linear plot and limited first-person narration is the way to go.  It keeps the story grounded and keeps the reader engaged; all the while the story verges on spinning out of control.  The narrative voice is simultaneously witty and sincere – serious in what it aims to achieve, but light-hearted enough to poke fun at itself.  The reading level is probably high school, but even more experienced readers will appreciate what Fforde accomplishes – although a fun read, it is not necessarily airy.


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.

4 – Additional elements are present and enhance the story.

The enormity of literary allusions will leave less experienced readers (particularly those who do not read classics or literary fiction) feeling a bit out of the loop (or simply missing out on what others are enjoying, without even knowing it).  As The Wall Street Journal notes, this book is “filled with clever wordplay, literary allusion and bibliowit” and it “combines elements of Monty Python, Harry Potter, Stephen Hawking, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”  What could be more fun for bibliophiles and the literati than reading a sci-fi mystery-thriller all about books?  How many of us would sacrifice ourselves to save the original works of our favorite author?  To protect our favorite book from permanent destruction?  The power of books – the danger of tampering with the classics – the sheer joy of finding oneself immersed in a literary mystery (who really wrote the Shakespearean plays, eh?).  The book was a joy – a page-turner- a carnival ride for book lovers.  This is the first book in a series that I definitely plan to continue reading. 


Suggested Reading for:

Age Level:  High School+

Interest: Literature, Literary History, Mystery, Science-Fiction, Action/Adventure, Meta-fiction.


Notable Quotes:

“Religion isn’t the cause of wars, it’s the excuse.”

“I think that you could have used your vast intellect far more usefully by serving mankind instead of stealing from it.”

“No bond is stronger than that welded in conflict; no greater friend is there than the one who stood next to you as you fought.”

“I’m not mad.  I’m just…well, differently moralled, that’s all.”

“Literary detection and firearms don’t really go hand in hand; pen mightier than the sword and so forth.”

“Ordinary adults don’t like children to speak of things that are denied them by their own gray minds.”

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2011 Challenges, Arthur Conan Doyle, Book Review, Fiction, Murder Mystery, Mystery

Review: A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 6
Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

Well, well, well.  I suppose I should have known that enjoying this first book in the Sherlock Holmes series would be elementary, my dear – indubitably!  Seriously, though, I am taken aback by how much I enjoyed this book.  I am not typically a murder-mystery reader or lover, and I took up the Sherlock Holmes collection out of a sense of obligation to the mass popularity it has gained and out of a sense of nostalgia for the old black & white television episodes I watched with my Dad, as a kid; and, of course, to the very amazing (in my opinion) recent film starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law (which I loved, loved).  So, okay, what I am saying is – even though I am not a lover of the genre in general (my only experiences with it are some Agatha Christie and E.A. Poe), Doyle certainly made a believer and cautious-fan out of me.  A Study in Scarlet introduces us to Holmes and Dr. Watson, as well as some of the bumbling London investigators, whom Holmes has a somewhat patronizing contempt for.  A murder takes place, an odd one, and Holmes is called-in to investigate.  Just when certain police detectives believed they had cracked the case, the suspect is found dead!  In what I assume to be typical Holmes fashion, the unsuspected killer is lured to 221B Baker Street, where he is apprehended, and then the reader is afforded his complete back story, including an incredibly detailed and interesting regional history, which brings us twenty years earlier, to the southwestern United States deserts.  The reader learns that so much more is involved than imagined, and what little clues were discovered actually amounted to just about nothing.  Did I have anything figured out?  Nope.  Did I believe Holmes’s deductive reasoning, as he explained how he “analyzes backwards?”  Sure – because there is no other choice.  I’m more of a Dr. Watson – intrigued, capable, sometimes helpful but, more than anything, simply along for the ride.

 

Characterization:
4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.

Doyle does a very nice job of giving the reader a clear understanding of these characters’ personalities and, to some extent, their histories and motivations.  Far more is learned about Dr. Watson than Holmes, though, which is partially frustrating but also extremely clever, because Holmes and his talents are such fascinating mysteries in their own right – it helps to propel the overall mystery of the story.   What is most impressive, though, is the amount of time and attention paid to the “villain” and villains (the supposed and the actual).  Doyle writes an intriguing history for this man – evoking a great sense of empathy from the reader, and a fantastic understanding of time and place.  We learn, just in time, who is this man, and to what lengths he has gone to avenge himself of an unspeakable crime, committed by a deeply sinister group of people (a group who I will not expose in order to prevent any type of religious debate from breaking out in response).  The minor characters, too – the incompetent detectives and their noble counterparts (Holmes’s gang of merry-men – street urchins) are given enough page time to be recognizable as characters long-familiar, though we are meeting them for the first time.  All-in-all, the first meeting is done so well that this reader cannot help but want to spend more time with the characters, to see how they will develop and what type of predicaments they may find themselves in later.

 

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

For a book published in 1887, I cannot believe how well-paced and easy to read it is, overall.  It does not have simple language or easy prose, by any means, but the narrative voice is so witty and engaging that the pages just turn and turn.  Dr. Watson’s narration via journal form is great and, though it is epistolary in form, it is written as if the reader is witnessing the events in real-time, which allows for a greater depth of involvement and connection to the characters and plot. I also enjoyed the break between “present” narration and the flashback, provided for the benefit of the murderer – that it was separated into two parts to accomplish this was well-planned and received (it kept the main plot from being convoluted or over-powered by the sub-plot).  It was also interesting to get that history and back-story after the crimes had taken place – it was almost as if we were thinking like Holmes – back-tracking from “resolution” to causes, as he claims to do, whenever he is confronted with a mystery.

Additional Elements:
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

The attention paid to modern science and medicine, plus historical criminal studies and psychology, really helps to progress the story and to allow the reader a real sense of Holmes’s genius and tenacity.  Holmes is certainly innately gifted, but A Study in Scarlet does give the reader glimpses of how much time and effort Holmes puts into thinking about clues in each case, and about the vast amount of reading and research he has done, in general, to allow himself to become the greatest crime-solver in history.  All of this did not come from nothing – Holmes is talented, yes, but he is not superhuman, though he enjoys being thought of as such! (See quotes 1 & 2 below).  Also, as mentioned above, the sub-plot and back-story of the criminal in America is just brilliant.  The attention to detail that is paid to the Mormons, the establishing of Salt Lake City, and the very real dangers that dissenters to the religion were faced with was wholly unexpected and almost breath-taking.  I was caught completely off-guard by this sub-plot and, while reading it, I could not believe how much new information I was getting – it took the idea of “mystery novel” to an elevated level.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level:  Adult

Interest: Mystery, Murder-Mystery, Mormonism, Vengeance, History

Notable Quotes:

“I’m not going to tell you much more of the case, Doctor. You know a conjurer gets no credit when once he has explained his trick, and if I show you too much of my method of working, you will come to the conclusion that I am a very ordinary individual after all.”

“They say that genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains,” he remarked with a smile. “It’s a very bad definition, but it does apply to detective work.”

“There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colorless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.”

“There is nothing new under the sun. It has all been done before.”

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgment.”

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2011 Challenges, 2011 TBR Challenge, Book Review, Dystopia, Fantasy, Fiction, Jeanne DuPrau, Post-Apocalyptic, Science-Fiction

Review: The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau
Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0
YTD: 4

Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

It is sometime in the future, on planet Earth, and something rather terrible has happened. For reasons not explained (though one would infer nuclear apocalypse), most of the world’s population has been eliminated, and only a small few survive, deep below the Earth, generations after the catastrophic event. They have no knowledge of their true origins, or of what happened centuries before their births. All they know is a group of people named “The Builders” created their city and left it stocked with an inexhaustible amount of supplies. That is – the people of Ember thought their supplies were never-ending. As it happens, the people were to have vacated the city some time ago, using instructions left for them by the builders. They were supposed to have resurfaced and rebuilt their community above ground, before supplies ran out, but those instructions were lost – and it is up to two inquisitive and daring twelve-year-old children, who stumble upon the instructions, to find their way out and get a message to the rest of the city: Egress!

Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.

The two main characters, Lina Mayfleet and Doon Harrow, are twelve year olds who have just graduated from school and gone off to join the city’s work force, as all citizens do at the age of twelve. Lina is fiercely loyal and has a strong sense of morality – wanting to do what is right. She is protective of her young sister and respectful of her grandmother and other elders, though she does not hesitate to let adults know when they are in the wrong. Doon is independent and hot-tempered, but sensitive. He too has a strong connection to his family, and his primary goal is to make his father proud. Unlike Lina, though, Doon is more able to leave the city behind and to let its people fend for themselves, preferring to leave further instructions for everyone on how to get out, rather than guide them. Doon’s independence comes across as uncaring or unsympathetic, which makes Lina, in contrast, seem to be the true leader (though she turns out to be forgetful – a trait which could cost the entire city but, fortunately, a convenient dues-ex-machina at the end is her -and their- salvation). These two are well written and distinct, as are the other minor characters, such as the Mayor, Lina’s caring neighbor, the botanist, and the shady shopkeeper. The characters do not have much depth, but this is a young adult novel, so they are as engaging as necessary, without complicating the story.

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.
*This portion has a few minor spoilers

The highest achievement for this book is the writing. Dialogue and prose are both very well done – simple but not boring, and well-paced overall. The most impressive example of the masterful writing, though, is in all that is described rather than told. This is necessary in a book where the people have forgotten their histories and do not know the meaning of many words or the uses for many tools. One of the greatest moments of the book is when Lina and Doon discover a boat, but have no idea what it is. Fortunately, “The Builders” anticipated this, and have left small cards indicating what each item on/around the boat is (though, not what it does). This type of description happens again later, when Lina and Doon come to the surface and see, for the first time, things like grass, the moon, the sun, a small animal and a new kind of fruit (fresh, not canned). None of these things have names, for the citizens of Ember, so they do not get names in the book – the reader does not witness Lina gazing at the moon but, instead, at the silver lantern in the sky. These types of necessary descriptions for common objects turn out to be some of the most beautiful and thought-provoking moments in the book.

Additional Elements:
3 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the Story.

Overall, this book is an interesting take on the post-apocalyptic novel. Many of this genre are set in other places – outer space, other planets, underwater. Many are set on Earth itself, but an Earth changed – barren and hostile. The City of Ember, though, is one of the few set almost entirely underground (preceded by Suzanne Martel’s The City Underground in 1963). This makes for an intriguing and uncomfortable story – witnessing people of Earth living under ground, with no knowledge that they are underground; instead, they simply think they are the one and only city – nothing exists outside the city limits, except darkness. There is a definite moral element to the story, a damning indictment of the nature of humanity – condemning and chastising a people who would willingly bring their civilizations to destruction and force their offspring to live miles below the Earth, their histories a complete mystery. There is also an examination of the dangers of power and greed – the age-old tale of a community forced to suffer due to the immorality and cowardice of its leader. Each of these themes is strong and woven well enough into the storyline to make it present without being overt. The one minor nuisance is the story’s resolution (though, of course, the story goes on in subsequent books) – the last few moments of the book allow Lina and Doon to look down upon their city, in an interesting way, but one which, in this reader’s opinion, puts the book’s realism in question.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Young Adult
Interest: Dystopia, Eschatology, Post-Apocalyptic Society, Science-Fiction, Fantasy, Friendship, Adventure, Coming-of-Age

This book is now available in the SHOP @ Roof Beam Reader

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2011 Challenges, 2011 TBR Challenge, Book Review, Coming-of-Age, Depression, Family, Fiction, Mental Health, Ned Vizzini, Young Adult

Review: It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini

It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini
Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0
YTD: 2

Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting and believable 

15-year-old Craig is having problems.  He sees a psycho-pharmacologist and psychologist regularly, he takes Zoloft, smokes pot, can’t eat, and regularly listens to the militant voice in his head, which sounds like a drill Sergeant and treats him like a cadet.   Craig is a brilliant young man, at least, he thought he was brilliant after earning a perfect score on the entrance exam to an elite pre-Professional High School in Manhattan; but, once he starts school, he realizes that he is not brilliant – he just works hard, and cannot manage anything higher than a 93% (and who in the world could be happy with 93%?).  So, Craig – estranged from his friends, embarrassed at his stupidity, intimidated by the pressures of technology (e-mail, voicemail, online romances), and at a loss for any real connections or passions, decides he wants to kill himself.  What ensues is a 2am chat with the 1-800-SUICIDE hotline, a walk-in admission to the local psychiatric hospital (though Craig doesn’t realize what the meaning of “admitted” is), and a five-day stay with a cast of delightfully strange characters.  Over these five days, Craig learns how to do without the pressures and distractions of the outside world, he puts life into perspective, rediscovers a passion for art, meets a pretty girl, and comes to the conclusion that his problems have come placing enormous pressure on himself to do the best at everything – get the highest grades, get into the best school around- only, without any real desire or purpose.  In the end, Craig (with a supportive family throughout) realizes that he should be in another school, doing what he loves and not what he believes is expected of him – he no longer wishes to be the President of the United States but, instead, an artist who can help others heal , changing lives in other ways.

Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.

Craig and the cast of misfits in the Adult Psychiatric wing of the hospital (where Craig was placed, because the adolescent wing was closed for repairs) are all interesting and fun to watch.  Craig, being the narrator and main character, is also the most highly developed of the bunch.  Craig’s family is interesting and sweet, though relatively flat throughout (the interactions between Craig and his sister, and Craig’s sister and their father are always fun to watch, though).  Craig’s friends are also under-developed, but this is acceptable because they turn out to be relatively shallow people, not there in any way for Craig when he may have needed them, so they get pushed to the sidelines as Craig heals.  Each of the patients at the psychiatric hospital do have their own quirks and characteristics, though, which makes them fun and interesting to watch, in relationship to one another and in their interactions with Craig.  The reader gets to know a few, to learn how they ended up there, and to see small steps of progress for a few (and steps back for others).

Prose/Style:
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

A great positive for this book is that the prose and style are genuinely “Young Adult.”  What I mean by that is, the book does not come across as if an adult were trying to write as a teenager, making attempts to sound younger, cooler, or more angst-filled.  Instead, it just feels like a teenager is narrating the story – honest, nervous, bold, and confused in equal measure.  The style made the story incredibly easy to read – it almost sucks you into the events taking place, so that 400+ pages flew by and suddenly I was at the end. It took me less than two days to read it, largely because the storyline was pushed along with such ease, thanks to the simple, humorous, easy-to-follow writing style.   The chapters were broken down into manageable parts, the language was simple (not complicated, thankfully, by the presence of a brilliant narrator) while the themes were more elevated, so that the marriage between the ambitious storyline and the easy-going prose matched the attitude and nature of the story’s protagonist, a simple teenager with rather extraordinary capacity and talent.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

What I enjoyed most about this book were its honesty, its setting, and its overall intent.  Vizzini is clearly making a point that children today are pressured at earlier and earlier stages in life to “figure it out” – to know who they are, what they want to do with their lives, and how they are going to get there, before they are even legally able to drive or vote.  There is a dangerous trend, this story implies, that is putting our young people at risk of grim psychological damage and which also causes serious impacts on physical health, growth, and development.  The parents in this book are idealized, almost to the point of being grotesques, but to demonstrate a point – adults need to be the ones who know what they are doing, and what kids are going through.  Adults need to know how to guide the younger generations, to encourage exploration and healthy competition, but to know when to say “enough is enough.”    It is a shame, and it is laudable that Vizzini, in such a funnily-serious way, attempts to bring these issues and concerns to light.  This is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s-Nestfor today’s younger generation – and we should all be paying attention.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Young Adult

Interest: Coming-of-Age, Mental Health, Depression, Youth, Education, Family, Friendship, Art

 Notable Quotes:

“I don’t believe in destiny; I just believe in biology, and hotness, and wanting girls.”

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