Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Book Review Information

Hello all!

Here are some quick synopses of the books you are assigned to read for class this semester (you are only required to choose one). The project description can be found in your syllabi. Happy reading! :)

- Jaime
  • Dear Diary -
Dear Diary is a collection of more than ten years of diary entries (based on the hugely popular monthly feature in Vice Magazine) juxtaposed against present-day updates that take us from Lesley Arfin’s middle school years in the early 90s to her clean and sober twentysomething years in New York City. When she wrote about Cynthia Karacas (it’s funny how you remember everyone’s first and last name like that) making her feel "retarded" back in 10th grade, the world was a dark, lonely place and she could see no light at the end of the tunnel. When she discovered heroin, things got even worse. Today, with the perspective that only rock bottom can give you, Lesley looks back on the apocalypse that was adolescence and asks, "What the hell was I talking about?" Lesley’s hilarious updates remind us how heavy it all seemed back then and how irrelevant it all really is in the face of adulthood. When she digs up all her old friends and enemies to get their take on each entry, a whole new perspective is added. Some are eager to apologize, while others are still mad because, "Let’s face it, you were a loser." No matter whom she talks to about the days we all discovered sex, drugs, and rock ’n roll, one thing is abundantly clear: we were ridiculous (Amazon).
  • Purple Hibiscus -
Purple Hibiscus, Nigerian-born writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's debut, begins like many novels set in regions considered exotic by the western reader: the politics, climate, social customs, and, above all, food of Nigeria (balls of fufu rolled between the fingers, okpa bought from roadside vendors) unfold like the purple hibiscus of the title, rare and fascinating. But within a few pages, these details, however vividly rendered, melt into the background of a larger, more compelling story of a joyless family. Fifteen-year-old Kambili is the dutiful and self-effacing daughter of a rich man, a religious fanatic and domestic tyrant whose public image is of a politically courageous newspaper publisher and philanthropist. No one in Papa's ancestral village, where he is titled "Omelora" (One Who Does For the Community), knows why Kambili¹s brother cannot move one of his fingers, nor why her mother keeps losing her pregnancies. When a widowed aunt takes an interest in Kambili, her family begins to unravel and re-form itself in unpredictable ways. --Regina Marler (Amazon).
  • She's Come Undone -
"Mine is a story of craving; an unreliable account of lusts and troubles that began, somehow, in 1956 on the day our free television was delivered." So begins the story of Dolores Price, the unconventional heroine of Wally Lamb's She's Come Undone. Dolores is a class-A emotional basket case, and why shouldn't she be? She's suffered almost every abuse and familial travesty that exists: Her father is a violent, philandering liar; her mother has the mental and emotional consistency of Jell-O; and the men in her life are probably the gender's most loathsome creatures. But Dolores is no quitter; she battles her woes with a sense of self-indulgence and gluttony rivaled only by Henry VIII. Hers is a dysfunctional Wonder Years, where growing up in the golden era was anything but ideal. While most kids her age were dealing with the monumental importance of the latest Beatles single and how college turned an older sibling into a long-haired hippie, Dolores was grappling with such issues as divorce, rape, and mental illness. Whether you're disgusted by her antics or moved by her pathetic ploys, you'll be drawn into Dolores's warped, hilarious, Mallomar-munching world (Amazon).
  • Push -
Claireece Precious Jones endures unimaginable hardships in her young life. Abused by her mother, raped by her father, she grows up poor, angry, illiterate, fat, unloved and generally unnoticed. So what better way to learn about her than through her own, halting dialect. That is the device deployed in the first novel by poet and singer Sapphire. "Sometimes I wish I was not alive," Precious says. "But I don't know how to die. Ain' no plug to pull out. 'N no matter how bad I feel my heart don't stop beating and my eyes open in the morning." An intense story of adversity and the mechanisms to cope with it (Amazon)
  • The Bluest Eye -
Originally published in 1970, The Bluest Eye is Toni Morrison's first novel. In an afterword written more than two decades later, the author expressed her dissatisfaction with the book's language and structure: "It required a sophistication unavailable to me." Perhaps we can chalk up this verdict to modesty, or to the Nobel laureate's impossibly high standards of quality control. In any case, her debut is nothing if not sophisticated, in terms of both narrative ingenuity and rhetorical sweep. It also shows the young author drawing a bead on the subjects that would dominate much of her career: racial hatred, historical memory, and the dazzling or degrading power of language itself.

Set in Lorain, Ohio, in 1941, The Bluest Eye is something of an ensemble piece. The point of view is passed like a baton from one character to the next, with Morrison's own voice functioning as a kind of gold standard throughout. The focus, though, is on an 11-year-old black girl named Pecola Breedlove, whose entire family has been given a cosmetic cross to bear:

You looked at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realized that it came from conviction, their conviction. It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question.... And they took the ugliness in their hands, threw it as a mantle over them, and went about the world with it.
There are far uglier things in the world than, well, ugliness, and poor Pecola is subjected to most of them. She's spat upon, ridiculed, and ultimately raped and impregnated by her own father. No wonder she yearns to be the very opposite of what she is--yearns, in other words, to be a white child, possessed of the blondest hair and the bluest eye.

This vein of self-hatred is exactly what keeps Morrison's novel from devolving into a cut-and-dried scenario of victimization. She may in fact pin too much of the blame on the beauty myth: "Along with the idea of romantic love, she was introduced to another--physical beauty. Probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought. Both originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion." Yet the destructive power of these ideas is essentially colorblind, which gives The Bluest Eye the sort of universal reach that Morrison's imitators can only dream of. And that, combined with the novel's modulated pathos and musical, fine-grained language, makes for not merely a sophisticated debut but a permanent one. --James Marcus (Amazon).

  • White Oleander -
Astrid Magnussen, the teenage narrator of Janet Fitch's engrossing first novel, White Oleander, has a mother who is as sharp as a new knife. An uncompromising poet, Ingrid despises weakness and self-pity, telling her daughter that they are descendants of Vikings, savages who fought fiercely to survive. And when one of Ingrid's boyfriends abandons her, she illustrates her point, killing the man with the poison of oleander flowers. This leads to a life sentence in prison, leaving Astrid to teach herself the art of survival in a string of Los Angeles foster homes.

As Astrid bumps from trailer park to tract house to Hollywood bungalow, White Oleander uncoils her existential anxieties. "Who was I, really?" she asks. "I was the sole occupant of my mother's totalitarian state, my own personal history rewritten to fit the story she was telling that day. There were so many missing pieces." Fitch adroitly leads Astrid down a path of sorting out her past and identity. In the process, this girl develops a wire-tight inner strength, gains her mother's white-blonde beauty, and achieves some measure of control over their relationship. Even from prison, Ingrid tries to mold her daughter. Foiling her, Astrid learns about tenderness from one foster mother and how to stand up for herself from another. Like the weather in Los Angeles--the winds of the Santa Anas, the scorching heat--Astrid's teenage life is intense. Fitch's novel deftly displays that, and also makes Astrid's life meaningful. --Katherine Anderson (Amazon).

  • Go Ask Alice -
The torture and hell of adolescence has rarely been captured as clearly as it is in this classic diary by an anonymous, addicted teen. Lonely, awkward, and under extreme pressure from her "perfect" parents, "Anonymous" swings madly between optimism and despair. When one of her new friends spikes her drink with LSD, this diarist begins a frightening journey into darkness. The drugs take the edge off her loneliness and self-hate, but they also turn her life into a nightmare of exalting highs and excruciating lows. Although there is still some question as to whether this diary is real or fictional, there is no question that it has made a profound impact on millions of readers during the more than 25 years it has been in print. Despite a few dated references to hippies and some expired slang, Go Ask Alice still offers a jolting chronicle of a teenager's life spinning out of control (Amazon).

Amazon. 1996. Amazon. 26 August 2009. http://www.amazon.com .

1 comment:

Leila said...

Dear Diary is my recommendation, though it is very crass at times and her story is quite extreme, particularly at the end. However, it's so hilarious at times--you will laugh and cry, but laugh more. She has a funny (and a little sick) sense of humor. All the books are heavy in nature and I'm quite partial to all of them. But I did read Dear Diary this Summer and enjoyed it immensely.