Thursday, February 26, 2009

Book Reviews

These stretch back all the way to when I was on bed rest, and had lots more time for reading. Nowadays, I try to balance a book on the boppy while I nurse, but the going is a little slower :o)

The Squatter and the Don is one of the first novels written by a Mexican American woman. Her style reminds me a lot of George Elliot, especially per Daniel Deronda where the prose is interjected by this kind of meta-narrative of philosophy or history. In this case, I feel she doesn't do it quite as seamlessly as Elliot because the characters seem rather flat, and more puppets for the point she is trying to make. The novel from a purely historical interest perspective did more for me than from a literature perspective to be honest, although I have a hard time extricating the history from the literature and vice versa: nobody writes in a vacuum. I knew the rough outline of what happened when California was annexed into the US and the resultant cultural displacement of the Mexican people, but this novel filled in a lot of gaps and provided a different perspective which I appreciated. I think that she definitely deserves a place in the canon, because while this wasn't my favorite novel for character development or outstanding, imaginative prose, De Burton has significant things to say and she does so with intelligence and grace.

Fifth Business is a novel I actually started when I took a Canadian Lit course a few years ago (I was tricked into taking the class because the course was titled "ethnic literature" or something else misleading. It was a very disappointing class . . . both in material and instruction). True confession: never finished the book for the class but still got an A. Anyway, I picked up the book to give it another go because frankly I was too ill with the baby to make a trip to the library and I didn't have anything else to read. I must say that I did enjoy this novel better the second time around, although I still had a few issues with some of the author's characterizations. The feminist in me protested at the way he portrayed the women in his novel: there was too much angel/whore dichotomy in some (the narrator actually creates a "saint" out of one) and in general they are given very little autonomy or understanding. Davies does explore some interesting themes--such as the nature of our roles in this life (whether you are the main character of the "play" or merely fifth business-a kind of enabler role) as well as the nature of miracles and personal relationships. There are some charming characters as well as very imaginative ones . . . but the overall feel I got from this book was dissatisfaction. Perhaps I didn't appreciate this book fully because of my reading strategies: I have a hard time not reading from a feminist/Marxist perspective. If you read from either a Freudian or Jungian perspective, you may enjoy it more. Or if you read from just a readers response . . . you may have a better shot. If anyone out there disagrees with me, I would be interested to hear your perspective on the novel. Maybe I'm just missing something, and should give it yet another shot. Although I have a few other hundred novels in my queue I think I'd rather tackle first . . .

In this novel, I was not disappointed. Alice Walker does an outstanding job of creating complex, interesting, and sympathetic characters that grow and struggle . . . and sometimes overcome. This book had me thinking, and feeling, and I couldn't put it down. I guess this isn't such a big surprise since this was the genre I became most interested in while I was studying at University. There are psychological questions that come into play--from the many faceted ways the main character responds to the abuse she experienced, to the way Black masculinity is portrayed, to the nature of love and how we love. I felt that this book deserves the praise it has received . . . and transcends the movie that was made about it. Although Oprah was pretty funny for once. There is so much more that I could say about this book, but with the time and energy and mental capacity I have at this moment I couldn't do it justice (ask me again in a few months when my baby is sleeping through the night) so I will leave it at this-- Good Read.

While I was on bed rest, my mom let me borrow a copy of Left to Tell to pass some of the tedium on the couch. This was one case where I recommend skipping the forward and just reading the book. In my personal opinion the guru who wrote the forward was kind of weird and creepy . . . but maybe that was just the terbutaline talking. Anyway--Left to Tell is a non-fiction account of a survivor of the genocide that happened in Rwanda during the ethnic wars between the Hutus and the Tutsis. She is a woman of great faith who relies completely on her belief in God to get her through the terror she experienced and the subsequent loss. I had mixed feelings after reading the book. I wasn't as profoundly moved perhaps as many of the people I have heard praise the book. I do have deep admiration for her moral courage and her emotional strength, as well as the humanitarian work and goodwill she promotes. Spirituality is a difficult thing to convey in words, because it is such an intensely personal experience, so it can be difficult to translate--especially when not writing in your native language. Still, it was a good book, and I do recommend it.

Jonathan Rosen is one of my favorite authors--and guess what Randy, he's a white male! (My husband doesn't seem to think I can appreciate an author unless they are, as he puts it, "ethnically oppressed.") Rosen is a Jewish writer from New York, who really hasn't written as much as I would like :o). He does have a fairly new book out that is non-fiction about birdwatching, and if anyone could get me to read a book about birdwatching, it is Rosen. Joy Comes in the Morning is his first novel, and while I didn't enjoy it quite as much as Eve's Apple, I still think it is a very good work. Joy weaves together the experiences of an ailing man who is a holocaust survivor but attempts suicide to prevent living like a vegetable after a stroke, his son and a female rabbi. His characters are real, his prose is engaging, and I actually didn't resent the way he portrayed his female main character. What I think I appreciated most about this novel was the conversation about faith, and what it means to live "religiously" and still authentically. While I disagreed with some of the theological premises of some of the characters (particularly in the areas of premarital sex), I found the conversation itself worthwhile. This was another book I couldn't put down, and made me feel inspired in my own writing--which is far too sparse these days.
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