Book Reviews

Thursday, April 29, 2010

My favorite book in my latest batch of reads was Willa Cather's O Pioneers! How have I missed her books up until now? The rest is a mishmash of poetry, nonfiction, novels and more.

Heaven and Other Poems
by Jack Kerouac

I really enjoyed Kerouac's letters to publisher and friend Donald Allen at the end of the book. They are childlike in their sincerity and earnestness. I can connect with his rambling style of writing much easier with his letters, than with his poetry. But I really enjoyed his poems too. He has a beautiful, sporadic way with words. This is a line from the title poem, "Heaven,"

"The Church? Earth's dogmatic mistakes have nothing to do with Heaven."

Invisible Man
by Ralph Ellison

A young black man is expelled from college after an afternoon drive spirals out of his control. Betrayed by his role model he flounders, disillusioned, in New York. He starts off optimistic and enthusiastic about his future. By the end he has lost all faith in humanity. He has runs ins with union factory workers, shock treatment, an eviction and a few other messy situations. He ends up working for a "brotherhood" that's trying to unite the black community in New York, but is run by white people.

There were aspects of this book that I thought were interesting, but the plot comes across as disjointed and the nameless main character seems so helpless. It seemed like every decision he made was a bad one. Every person he decided to trust betrayed him and he was so naive. I wanted him to be a little more cynical, more world-weary. He was so surprised when bad things happened to him, but it seemed like he never did anything to avoid these situations. I think there was certainly some bad luck involved, but I was just so frustrated with him that it was hard to root for his success.

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
by Anthony Bourdain

Bourdain's balls-to-the-wall memoir of his time as a chef is intense, but it's also mesmerizing. It's a behind-the-scenes view of the hectic, cutthroat world of cooking. I don't envy the lives of the people in this world, but they do fascinate me. I can't imagine choosing a life where every weekend night is spent serving other people, who rarely appreciate your skill. Chefs and kitchen staff are hired and fired with the speed of a rapidly revolving door. Tempers flare easily and the consequences are rough. It's all drugs, sex, but no rock 'n' roll. Bourdain's writing style makes the crazy life enthralling. He is ruthless in his descriptions of people he has worked with, but he doesn't exclude himself from that same tough scrutiny. His passion for food is contagious. The language and descriptions are rough, so this isn't for everyone. But if you can take it, it's absolutely entertaining.

(A spread in Literary England about Wuthering Heights)

Literary England

by Richard Wilcox

This book includes photos from the throughout England of literary locations that inspired scenes in classic literature. Each one includes a quote from the text, the photo and a brief explanation of where the location is and why it was used. The information is a bit dated, but it's still interesting.

The Meaning of Consuelo
by Judith Oritz Cofer

A young Puerto Rican girl, Consuelo, tells stories about her family and neighborhood and about taking care of her outgoing younger sister. Her best friend is her oddball male cousin who moves to New York City with his father. While her whole family focuses on her adulterous father and socially stunted sister, Consuelo falls between the cracks. I felt heartbroken for Consuelo and frustrated with her distracted parents and cruel classmates. It was well written and interesting, but not one that will stick with me forever.

O Pioneers!
by Willa Cather

Set in Nebraska at the beginning of the 20th century. The Bergsons, a family of Swedish immigrants, struggle to succeed with their farm. When their father dies, the eldest daughter Alexandra inherits the farm. She cares for her younger brothers and makes the hard decisions, which bring them success. Years later, Alexandra's relationship with her childhood friend, Carl Linstrum, causes tension between her and her brothers. Her youngest brother, Emil, falls in love with the married bohemian, Marie Shabata.

The plot seems simple enough, but it was so much more than that. Alexandra is a strong woman who isn't afraid of trying new things, even though her brothers are. She follows her heart and embraces outcasts when others turn their backs. Cather's descriptions of the land just drip with love for it. You can't read this without understanding her passion for it and her respect for the pioneers themselves. I was completely swept away by the simplicity of the tale. I loved the character and the way it was written and will definitely be reading more of her work.

The Poe Shadow
by Matthew Pearl

Set in Baltimore in the mid-1800s. A young man, Quentin Clark, is a huge fan of Edgar Allan Poe and is distraught when his favorite author dies unexpectedly. Putting his own life on hold he begins to research the man and the mystery, even traveling to Paris to try to find the inspiration for the detective Dupin, to help him solve the questions surrounding Poe's death.

Clark is a stiff and awkward leading man. He always seems to be out of the loop and is the last to figure out anything. The story lags and it was hard stay interested. I honestly think I would have preferred to read a nonfiction book discussing Poe's death, instead of this mystery novel. Pearl did a great job researching the book and the factual information is fascinating. I've been a Poe fanatic for a long time, so it was worth reading, but I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who isn't.


Belle Wong said...

What a great list of books - you've definitely been busy with your reading. I haven't read anything by Cather - I really should.

Undine said...

Interesting juxtaposition of books! I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who was unimpressed with "The Poe Shadow." I'm a Poe fanatic myself, and I couldn't even finish the book. It seemed to have very little to do with the real Poe, and everything to do with this fictional protagonist who didn't interest me one whit.

The question of why that novel was so popular is a bigger mystery to me than Poe's death ever was.

Jenners said...

You really do read a lot! Wow! My husband really like "Kitchen Confidential" but I never got around to reading it ... yet.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Belle- Definitely check her out. I've heard some of her other books are even better.

Undine- I read the Poe Shadow because I'll be in Baltimore in May and thought it would be fun to read some of the history first. I wish I'd just read a book about the city. Disappointing.

Anonymous said...

I've been wanting to read more Cather since adoring Death Comes for the Archbishop last year. I think O, Pioneers should be next. :)

Captain Nick Sparrow said...

I have My Antonia by Willa Cather which I have yet to read. The funny thing is that the description seems a lot like the description of O Pioneers!