Category Archives: Book review

Review of A Farewell to Arms

My undergraduate degree is in English Literature, and while I had English classes I rarely read for fun because I was so busy with reading for school. Now I’m working on a Masters in Secondary Education, and while that also requires a lot of reading, almost none of the things I read are novels, so I’ve gotten back into reading for pleasure. Typically I read for a little while at night before I go to bed.

I used to read so many books with “literary merit” when I was an undergrad, but now that I’m reading for pleasure, I find myself reading few classics. The books I have read over the past few months have been, for the most part, great, but far from the classics I was taught to snobbishly prefer. There’s a debate among high school English teachers about whether we should assign classics or more modern books. The classics people argue that classics are that for a reason–the have value that transcends time and reading them develops our students intellectually and culturally in ways that non-canonical reading material cannot. The other side of the argument is that most people find most classics unenjoyable, and that by assigning these to our students we are killing their love for reading. Right now, my opinion falls in the middle of this argument. I do believe that classics are important to present to our students and, if done right, they can be enjoyable. But I also plan on assigning more modern books to my students, because so many of them are good too, and my students will likely enjoy reading them more than they do classics. I want my students to love reading above all, even if the things they read aren’t prestigious in a academic snob sense.

Long story short, I decided because of my background (English major) and future (English teacher) that it was time to read a classic again. So I picked up A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway. It was first published in 1929 and tells the story of a romance between an American in WWI who is an ambulance driver for the Italian military and an English nurse also working in Italy.

It is considered a classic for a reason, and if you do a quick Google search you can find many people raving about how wonderful it is. I’m not questioning this novel’s literary merit with what I’m about to say, I’m just expressing a personal opinion. I didn’t like it. I struggled through Hemingway’s sparse prose which really lacks wordplay and descriptions. The story itself did not keep make me want to keep reading–I kept reading because I wanted to finish the book so I could move on to something else. The ending left me disappointed as well. I don’t plan on assigning this book to my students or recommending it to anyone. I’m not saying it does not have literary merit or good qualities, I’m just not a fan.

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Review of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

When I did a Google search for The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, one of the first things that caught my eye was a quotation from a review of Aimee Bender’s 2010 novel on NPR: “The characters in Aimee Bender’s latest novel could be modern-day descendants of J.D. Salinger’s Glass family.” Anyone familiar with Salinger’s work, particularly the Glass family featured in Franny and Zooey, Raise High the Roof Beam, and Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, is well aware of the intelligence, alertness, and neuroses suggested by the comparison. This comparison is fitting for the characters in this novel. The main character and narrator, Rose, is an extraordinary young woman and perceptive narrator who can taste in food the emotions and thoughts of the person who prepared it. This turns out to be both a blessing and a curse for Rose. The story focuses around her and her family. Her brother is a socially inept scientific genius, her mother a free (and lost) spirited novice carpenter, and her father an attorney. As the story unfolds, the entire family reveals itself to be much more complex and interesting than they appear to be at first glance.

I was surprised at how taken I was by this novel. Bender’s writing is spare and simple, but I was always excited to turn the page. The story’s twists and turns took me by surprise, and its ending caught me totally off-guard. This is a novel I can see myself re-reading and would suggest to anyone and everyone. It is equally pleasurable and worthwhile.

Review of The Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver was first published in 1998. The novel tells the story of a Southern Baptist family from Bethlehem, GA whose strong-willed father takes them to the Congo as missionaries.

While Nathan, the father, is whole-heartedly devoted to their mission, the rest of the family (his wife, Orleanna, and daughters Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May) begin to view the countless obstacles and extreme hardships they face in Africa as reasons to doubt their place in the small village of Kilanga as missionaries.

I loved this book. Barbara Kingsolver is a fantastic author who seamlessly weaves accurate scientific, cultural, and political information in with her fictional stories. Not only was I fascinated by the story of the Price family, I also learned a tremendous amount about natural and cultural life in Africa in the 1960’s. Information on African post-colonial politics that was not taught to me in school was brought to life in this book.

I was equally fascinated and repulsed by Nathan Price’s religious mission and views that led him to hate the village of Kilanga and the women in his family. The story’s narrators alternate between the women in the family, Orleanna, Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May. All of the characters change dramatically throughout the course of the novel and these changes are revealed through their narration.

I highly recommend this book for anyone that is interested in reading a well-crafted novel, Christian fundamentalism, 1960’s post-colonial Africa, or wants a lesson in how to develop characterization throughout a novel in an organic way.

Time to breathe

After I take a final today at four, I am done with this semester. The long break is much-needed–I graduated in May and had three weeks off before starting grad school.

My to-do list for break looks like this–
-Send resumes and letters of interest for jobs next year to another group of schools I’m interested in working at
-Shadow a handful of teachers in my hometown
-Clean room at parents’ house
-Read
-Run
-Crochet
-Write
-Watch movies

I have never been happier with a to-do list in my life.

I’ve been really into Edith Piaf lately, and here is her most famous song. The title, “Non, Je ne Regrette Rien” translates to “No, I regret nothing.” I love it!

I’ve wrapped up my reading of a couple of books over the past couple days.

I must be honest, I’m not crazy about Stuart Dybek’s I Sailed with Magellan. It’s written in the spirit of James Joyce’s Dubliners, a collection of stories about Chicago residents. While Dybek’s vision is impressive, it just does not add up for me. A handful of the stories were really great, but others were a little exhausting to read. However, this is just my opinion. Many people love this book, and it was actually loaned to me by a friend who is herself a talented writer with good taste in books. So perhaps you should give it a chance, but I was not impressed.

I also am not the biggest fan of Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution. This book is a collection of stories and essays about Claiborne’s radical practice of Christianity. The writing is good and the stories interesting and inspirational. Perhaps what rubbed me the wrong way is that I am also a Christian, but my practice is incredibly different from what Claiborne suggests. I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in religion and social change.

I hope to be writing here at Electric Spiel a lot more than usual while I’m on break and look forward to reading your comments.

Review of A Walk in the Woods

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson was first published in 1998. This travel memoir follows Bryson and his friend Stephen as they attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail.

The Appalachian Trail extends from North Georgia to Maine, covering roughly 2,197 miles. Hiking the trail end-to-end is an admirable feat attempted by many but not always successfully accomplished.

In this book, Bryson weaves together his adventures on the trail with discussion of the ecology and history of the trail itself and areas he passes through. The book is humorous, challenging, and educational. I felt like I was walking alongside Bill and Stephen as they huffed and puffed through their misadventures. I also learned a lot and gained a greater appreciation for nature in general, more specifically the woods where I’m from.

Laugh if you will, but reading this book actually inspired me to take my own walk in the woods. A couple chapters into the book I decided to organize a camping trip for myself and six friends to a state park about an hour away from where we live. This book made experiencing nature seem so appealing and rewarding that I just had to get out there.

So this weekend, out there I got. We made it to our campsite Friday night, successfully set up camp, started a fire, cooked dinner (chili and baked potatoes), and shivered through the night with temperatures dipping down into the 40s. I learned that cocooning down into my sleeping bag from the beginning of the night trapped my body heat and kept me warm all night, and last night slept like a baby. I didn’t wake up once! We hiked along two 1.5 mile trails in the park and saw so many beautiful fall leaves, creeks, streams, hills, and ravines. Last night we cooked hot dogs, made s’mores, and chatted around the warm fire until we ran out of wood and ran into our warm sleeping bags. The only disaster of the trip was me and a friend both getting stung by yellow jackets while gathering fire wood. I was stung once under the eye, but she was stung three times after the yellow jacket got in her shirt! Luckily neither of us are allergic or divas, so everything carried along after that just fine. I had a fantastic weekend and cannot wait to go camping again! Being outdoors was peaceful and made me indescribably happy.

One of the highest measures of praise a book can receive in my opinion is to make the reader seek out a real-life experience that imitates something they’ve read about, and this book took me there. I highly recommend it to all, whether you think you’re an outdoors person or not.