A Few Short Book Reviews

I’ve been horribly remiss in my book reviews as the semester has started and I’ve been swamped. So… here’s a a few short reviews of what I’ve been reading.

The Golem and the Jinni
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a wonderful book! Helene Wecker draws three dimensional characters who change and grow and evolve before our eyes. Even her stock characters, the old arab gossip, the lapsed jew, the pampered socialite, all have an extra quality to them which allows us, as readers, to be fully invested in their lives.

Ms. Wecker also has a nice way of drawing on disparate elements of various cultures to create a turn of the (19th) century New York which is eminently believable and yet, at the same time, absolutely fantastic. Her ability to combine the myths of the Jewish and Arab cultures could lead to a modern day metaphor but I think that’s taking the easy way out. I think she’s not so much as working with the religious and geographic backgrounds of specific people but globalizing the individual and yet bringing the world itself to a few blocks in the city.

The Story of Dr. Dolittle
The Story of Dr. Dolittle by Hugh Lofting
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Wow!

Like a lot of people I’d seen the Rex Harrison film and remembered it fondly so I thought reading the book would be a nice change of pace.

I was wrong.

The book itself is a nice, episodic story involving Dr. John Dolittle who forgoes his human patients in favor of the animals with whom he soon learns to speak. So far so good. It’s when they go to Africa to help a tribe of apes that things get a little out of whack. The depictions of African tribes are about as blatantly racist as you can get and unexpurgated versions of the book include several racial epithets which would never see print today.

Aside from that, the plot is easily digested and a little simple. The themes are not terribly deep but for kids, the adventures would probably provide the right mix of excitement and danger (for parents, it’s not too exciting or dangerous, and so there’s nothing to really scare the kids).

Changing Places
Changing Places by David Lodge
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two professors, alike in propensity…

David Lodge’s book of two university professors on a job exchange in 1969 is a fun read, reminding me of the works of Thorne Smith in its light-hearted dealings of sometimes serious matters. The book is a snapshot of the end of the 60s told from the safe distance of 1975 (the book’s publication date) and shows the differences and, more importantly, the similarities between a Berkeley-like Euphoria (located in a fictive middle state between north and south California and Rummidge, a stand in for Birmingham.

It’s a nice comedy of contrasts as the two men, Phillip Swallow from England and Morris Zapp from America end up taking over each other’s lives, finding in the them the missing parts of themselves. There’s an exploration of environment vs. upbringing along with a certain amount of healthy absurdity.

At times, the book is laugh out loud funny and at times rather thought provoking. In both cases it proves that university faculties are the same everywhere in the world.

A Man Without a Country
A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If This Isn't Nice, What Is?: Advice for the Young
If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice for the Young by Kurt Vonnegut
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(these two are virtually the same book) Vonnegut is an amazing writer. He’s a wonderful public speaker. He’s got a lot to say and he knows how to say it.

With all that in mind, reading this book of speeches is best parsed out over several weeks, and not, like I did, read in one sitting.

It’s not that they’re bad – they’re not. But they tend to get repetitive. By the end, you feel like you could cut and paste your own Vonnegut speech and I hate the fact that he can be reduced like that. I personally think this book is a disservice to the man. As a series of one-offs or kindle singles, even illustrated versions, any of these would make great graduation presents or birthday gifts but as a whole, they feel like less than the sum of their parts.

Additionally, In If This Isn’t Nice… , an audio book, other people reading Vonnegut’s words, especially in this context, just doesn’t work. This would be so much better if the actual recordings of Vonnegut could have been found and used instead of two guys who, while trying very hard, fail more often than they succeed.

Genesis
Genesis by Bernard Beckett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bernard Beckett’s book is a quick, easy read about a futuristic Dystopian society. Structurally, it’s an interesting read since the bulk of the story is our protagonist telling the story of someone else. We get inside the head of Anax, our narrator, who is undergoing a 4 hour oral examination. Basically, we’re watching someone take an exam.

The story she relates explains the world we’re in, and, by the end, what’s happened to it. Unfortunately, there are a few logical problems, not enough questions being asked by the people of the world which are, in turn asked by the readers. If these were answered, though, then the end wouldn’t make sense. And that’s the problem for me. I don’t want a plot which relies on my being a complicit reader. I want an author who will have thought of these questions and answered them already.

I know this book won a number of awards for YA Literature, and well done to it, It’s a decent book. But I also think that because it’s a bit different in it’s presentation, and will certainly take you someplace you didn’t know you were going (albeit through, I think, slightly deceptive practices), that gets confused for high art.

View all my reviews

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