2011 TBR Challenge, Book Review, E.L. Doctorow, Fiction, Literature

Review: Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow

Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

YTD: 69


Plot/Story:

4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime is one of those, “I can’t believe it took me so long to read this” kind of books.  It has been sitting on my shelf for years, intriguing me but intimidating me at the same time.  I have only ever read one Doctorow novel (Homer & Langley), which I loved, but for some reason, I didn’t believe Doctorow could do such a brilliant job twice.  I was wrong.  Ragtime is early-20th Century American in print.  Henry Ford, Harry Houdini, and J.P. Morgan, racial tensions and union-building, women’s suffrage and world wars: Ragtime has it all, because America was dealing with it all.


Characterization:

4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.

The story is narrated by an unknown third party, who refers to certain characters as “Mother and Father,” but who is never a part of the story himself.  It is possible that he is their “adopted” son, but this is conjecture since the issue of the narrator is never addressed.  It may also simply be a third-person omniscient presence, indicative of “the Historian.”  Aside from this family, the main characters include a diverse group of folks, including: Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, an African-American pianist and the woman (maid to the above-mentioned family) who had his child, as well as a young, beautiful Starlet, a Jewish man and his daughter, and a women’s rights activist. Each of the characters represents something important about America at the time – an ideal, a bigotry, a fear, a promise.  From the entrepreneur to the artist, from the activist to the magician, these people are individuals who, whether closely or distantly connected, shape the nature of a nation.


Prose/Style:

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

At nearly 400-pages, this book – a period piece- could easily have been a drag.  Historical fiction has been hit-or-miss with me.  Some, like Irving Stone, manage to dance the delicate tight-rope of fiction and non-fiction, so that the real events –the facts of historical situations- are presented to the reader in a creative, highly readable way.  Other authors make the mistake of presenting their works like a textbook, even if their story is largely fictionalized, so there is little pleasure or enjoyment to be gained from the experience of reading the book itself.  Doctorow is much the former.  Although he is dealing with real events and experiences, and has obviously done the research required for accuracy, his craftsmanship in writing truly shines.  He is a brilliant storyteller and creative writer, who combines the real and imagined in a seamless way.  The book was a page-turner for two reasons: the premise and the prose.  They both work wonderfully.


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

4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

There is so much to say in this regard, that it is hard to know where to start.  For anyone who is curious about America in the early-1900s, I would suggest this book.  It is relevant, factual, believable, and still entertaining.  There are so many different elements being explored (Mother/Son relationships, Employer/Employee relationships, the Immigrant experience, the Female experience, the Inventors, the Millionaires, the poor, and the powerful) that it makes the reader question who is the main character of the book.  This can be distracting, until one realizes that the main character is The American.  This book is entirely about the experience of being American in America during this time, and the realization that “American” meant so many different things (hope, power, money, love, equality, individuality, freedom) to so many different people but, also, the same thing to everyone: respect.


Suggested Reading for:

Age Level: High School +

Interest: American History, Literature, Historical Fiction, Race Relations, American Dream

Notable Quotes:

“It was evident to him that the world composed and recomposed itself constantly in an endless process of dissatisfaction.”

“Friendship is what endures. Shared ideals, respect for the whole character of a human being.”

“It occurred to Father one day that Coalhouse Walker Jr. didn’t know he was a Negro. The more he thought about this the more true it seemed. Walker didn’t act or talk like a colored man. He seemed to be able to transform the customary deferences practiced by his race so that they reflected to his own dignity rather than the recipient’s.”

“And though the newspapers called the shooting the Crime of the Century, Goldman knew it was only 1906 and there were ninety-four years to go.”

Standard
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.

Standard
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.”

Standard
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

Standard
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.”

Standard