Drive-By Reviews: Fall 2014

Well . . . My first semester as a senior is finally over, and it was brutal.

Which is why most of my blogs felt something like this.
Which is why most of my blogs this month felt something like this.

But as an English major, I read a lot. Some of it was great, and most of it wasn’t. But in tweet-length reviews (for those even less internet-literate than I, that means they must be shorter than 140 characters), I’m going to give a final farewell to this long semester by giving you a list of books to read — or avoid.

Let’s go!

Animal Farm by George Orwell (novella) description:

A farm is taken over by its overworked, mistreated animals. With flaming idealism and stirring slogans, they set out to create a paradise of progress, justice, and equality. Thus the stage is set for one of the most telling satiric fables ever penned–a razor-edged fairy tale for grown-ups that records the evolution from revolution against tyranny to a totalitarianism just as terrible. Available in April. rating: 4.5 stars

Drunk review: Surprisingly funny. Not as grand as 1984, but beautifully crafted without an unnecessary word/character. Not a light read, but a good one.

Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry by Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser (poetry, obviously) description:

Braided Creek contains more than 300 poems exchanged in this longstanding correspondence. Wise, wry, and penetrating, the poems touch upon numerous subjects, from the natural world to the nature of time. Harrison and Kooser decided to remain silent over who wrote which poem, allowing their voices, ideas, and images to swirl and merge into this remarkable suite of lyrics.

Each time I go outside the world
is different. This has happened
all my life.
The moon put her hand
over my mouth and told me
to shut up and watch.
A nephew rubs the sore feet
of his aunt,
and the rope that lifts us all toward grace
creaks on the pulley.
Under the storyteller’s hat
are many heads, all troubled. rating: 4.5 stars

Drunk review: The good poems are very good; the bad ones are forgettable. Has a lot to say about life, loss, aging, and nature, and mostly says it well.

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut (novel) description:

In Breakfast of Champions, one of Kurt Vonnegut’s  most beloved characters, the aging writer Kilgore Trout, finds to his horror that a Midwest car dealer is taking his fiction as truth. What follows is murderously funny satire, as Vonnegut looks at war, sex, racism, success, politics, and pollution in America and reminds us how to see the truth. rating: 4.2 stars

Drunk review: Deserves a higher rating. Filled with hilarious illustrations and hard to put down. So clever, and accessible without dumbing anything down.

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin (novel) description:

“One of the most unforgettable characters in contemporary literature” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette), Eilis Lacey has come of age in small-town Ireland in the hard years following World War Two. When an Irish priest from Brooklyn offers to sponsor Eilis in America, she decides she must go, leaving her fragile mother and her charismatic sister behind.

Eilis finds work in a department store on Fulton Street, and when she least expects it, finds love. Tony, who loves the Dodgers and his big Italian family, slowly wins her over with patient charm. But just as Eilis begins to fall in love, devastating news from Ireland threatens the promise of her future. rating: 3.6 stars

Drunk review: If you hate passive heroes, RUN. Frustrating ending, but Eilis is likable enough. A must-read for anyone in a transitional stage of life.

Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel (play) description:

It is 1936 and harvest time in County Donegal. In a house just outside the village of Ballybeg live the five Mundy sisters, barely making ends meet, their ages ranging from twenty-six up to forty. The two male members of the household are brother Jack, a missionary priest, repatriated from Africa by his superiors after twenty-five years, and the seven-year-old child of the youngest sister. In depicting two days in the life of this menage, Brian Friel evokes not simply the interior landscape of a group of human beings trapped in their domestic situation, but the wider landscape, interior and exterior, Christian and pagan, of which they are nonetheless a part. rating: 4.3 stars

Drunk review: Life in Ireland sucks, esp if you’re a woman. A bit of a slog at times, but worth reading if you want to feel smart. Never saw the movie.

Dubliners by James Joyce (short story collection) description:

Dubliners is a collection of short stories by James Joyce that was first published in 1914. The fifteen stories were meant to be a naturalistic depiction of the Irish middle-class life in and around Dublin in the early years of the twentieth century.

The stories were written at a time when Irish nationalism was at its peak and a search for a national identity and purpose was raging; at a crossroads of history and culture, Ireland was jolted by various converging ideas and influences. They center on Joyce’s idea of an epiphany: a moment where a character has a special moment of self-understanding or illumination.

The initial stories in the collection are narrated by children as protagonists, and as the stories continue, they deal with the lives and concerns of progressively older people. This is in line with Joyce’s tripartite division of the collection into childhood, adolescence, and maturity.

The stories contained in Dubliners are “The Sisters,” “An Encounter,” “Araby,” “Eveline,” “After the Race,” “Two Gallants,” “The Boarding House,” “A Little Cloud,” “Counterparts,” “Clay,” “A Painful Case,” “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” “A Mother,” “Grace,” and “The Dead.” rating: 4.2 stars

Drunk review: Surprisingly reader-friendly considering the author. Interesting characters and plots held together by gorgeous prose. Definitely check out.

The Portable Dorothy Parker (collection of poems, stories, reviews, and essays) description

The second revision in sixty years, this sublime collection ranges over the verse, stories, essays, and journalism of one of the twentieth century’s most quotable authors.

For this new twenty-first-century edition, devoted admirers can be sure to find their favorite verse and stories. But a variety of fresh material has also been added to create a fuller, more authentic picture of her life’s work. There are some stories new to the Portable, “Such a Pretty Little Picture,” along with a selection of articles written for such disparate publications as VogueMcCall’sHouse and Garden, and New Masses. Two of these pieces concern home decorating, a subject not usually associated with Mrs. Parker. At the heart of her serious work lies her political writings-racial, labor, international-and so “Soldiers of the Republic” is joined by reprints of “Not Enough” and “Sophisticated Poetry-And the Hell With It,” both of which first appeared in New Masses. “A Dorothy Parker Sampler” blends the sublime and the silly with the terrifying, a sort of tasting menu of verse, stories, essays, political journalism, a speech on writing, plus a catchy off-the-cuff rhyme she never thought to write down.

The introduction of two new sections is intended to provide the richest possible sense of Parker herself. “Self-Portrait” reprints an interview she did in 1956 with The Paris Review, part of a famed ongoing series of conversations (“Writers at Work”) that the literary journal conducted with the best of twentieth-century writers. What makes the interviews so interesting is that they were permitted to edit their transcripts before publication, resulting in miniature autobiographies.

“Letters: 1905-1962,” which might be subtitled “Mrs. Parker Completely Uncensored,” presents correspondence written over the period of a half century, beginning in 1905 when twelve-year-old Dottie wrote her father during a summer vacation on Long Island, and concluding with a 1962 missive from Hollywood describing her fondness for Marilyn Monroe. rating: 4.5 stars

Drunk review: Bitingly clever and perfect to a word, this should sit on everyone’s coffee table for people to pick up and flip through every now and then.

Little Women by Lousia May Alcott (novel) description:

Little Women is one of the best loved books of all time. Lovely Meg, talented Jo, frail Beth, spoiled Amy: these are hard lessons of poverty and of growing up in New England during the Civil War. Through their dreams, plays, pranks, letters, illnesses, and courtships, women of all ages have become a part of this remarkable family and have felt the deep sadness when Meg leaves the circle of sisters to be married at the end of Part I. Part II, chronicles Meg’s joys and mishaps as a young wife and mother, Jo’s struggle to become a writer, Beth’s tragedy, and Amy’s artistic pursuits and unexpected romance. Based on Louise May Alcott’s childhood, this lively portrait of nineteenth-century family life possesses a lasting vitality that has endeared it to generations of readers. rating: 4.4 stars

Drunk review: I have yet to successfully finish this book. The main characters are a great example of the 4 humors, but otherwise aren’t very interesting.

Lives Other Than My Own by Emmanuel Carrère (memoir) description:

In Sri Lanka, a tsunami sweeps a child out to sea, her grandfather helpless against the onrushing water. In France, a woman dies from cancer, leaving her husband and small children bereft. What links these two catastrophes is the presence of Emmanuel Carrère, who manages to find consolation and even joy as he immerses himself in lives other than his own. The result is a heartrending narrative of endless love, a meditation on courage in the face of adversity, and an intimate look at the beauty of ordinary lives. rating: 4.6 stars

Drunk review: Raw and honest, but an unsatisfying ending. Didn’t agree with some of the conclusions he drew, but it’s the most genuine narrative I’ve read.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor E. Frankl (memoir) description:

Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s memoir has riveted generations of readers with its descriptions of life in Nazi death camps and its lessons for spiritual survival. Between 1942 and 1945 Frankl labored in four different camps, including Auschwitz, while his parents, brother, and pregnant wife perished. Based on his own experience and the experiences of others he treated later in his practice, Frankl argues that we cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose. Frankl’s theory-known as logotherapy, from the Greek word logos (“meaning”)-holds that our primary drive in life is not pleasure, as Freud maintained, but the discovery and pursuit of what we personally find meaningful. rating: 4.7 stars

Drunk review: Frankl lived a long, painful life, and what he learns is fascinating. I don’t agree with everything said, but he has a lot to teach readers.

Marcovaldo: Or the Seasons in the City by Italo Calvino (novella) description:

Marcovaldo is an unskilled worker in a drab industrial city in northern Italy. He is an irrepressible dreamer and an inveterate schemer. Much to the puzzlement of his wife, his children, his boss, and his neighbors, he chases his dreams-but the results are never the expected ones. rating: 4.6 stars

Drunk review: Marcovaldo isn’t a boring character, but he’s a really unlikable one. This book stretched my empathy and patience to the breaking point and then some.

Misery by Stephen King (novel) description:

Paul Sheldon. He’s a bestselling novelist who has finally met his biggest fan. Her name is Annie Wilkes and she is more than a rabid reader—she is Paul’s nurse, tending his shattered body after an automobile accident. But she is also his captor, keeping him prisoner in her isolated house.

Now Annie wants Paul to write his greatest work—just for her. She has a lot of ways to spur him on. One is a needle. Another is an ax. And if they don’t work, she can get really nasty. rating: 4.6 stars

Drunk review: One of 2 books I read for fun this semester! Even re-reading it, I couldn’t breathe. Just perfect & says a lot about the nature of writing.

A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift (essay)

Sparknotes description:

The full title of Swift’s pamphlet is “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burthen to their Parents, or the Country, and for Making them Beneficial to the Publick.” The tract is an ironically conceived attempt to “find out a fair, cheap, and easy Method” for converting the starving children of Ireland into “sound and useful members of the Commonwealth.” Across the country poor children, predominantly Catholics, are living in squalor because their families are too poor to keep them fed and clothed.

The author argues, by hard-edged economic reasoning as well as from a self-righteous moral stance, for a way to turn this problem into its own solution. His proposal, in effect, is to fatten up these undernourished children and feed them to Ireland’s rich land-owners. Children of the poor could be sold into a meat market at the age of one, he argues, thus combating overpopulation and unemployment, sparing families the expense of child-bearing while providing them with a little extra income, improving the culinary experience of the wealthy, and contributing to the overall economic well-being of the nation.

The author offers statistical support for his assertions and gives specific data about the number of children to be sold, their weight and price, and the projected consumption patterns. He suggests some recipes for preparing this delicious new meat, and he feels sure that innovative cooks will be quick to generate more. He also anticipates that the practice of selling and eating children will have positive effects on family morality: husbands will treat their wives with more respect, and parents will value their children in ways hitherto unknown. His conclusion is that the implementation of this project will do more to solve Ireland’s complex social, political, and economic problems than any other measure that has been proposed.

Drunk review: Funny in a way that makes you feel awful, and alarmingly applicable today. Free online, so there’s no excuse to not read it NOW!


Notes From No Man’s Land by Eula Biss (essay collection/memoir) description:

A frank and fascinating exploration of race and racial identity

Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays begins with a series of lynchings and ends with a series of apologies. Eula Biss explores race in America and her response to the topic is informed by the experiences chronicled in these essays — teaching in a Harlem school on the morning of 9/11, reporting for an African American newspaper in San Diego, watching the aftermath of Katrina from a college town in Iowa, and settling in Chicago’s most diverse neighborhood.

As Biss moves across the country from New York to California to the Midwest, her essays move across time from biblical Babylon to the freedman’s schools of Reconstruction to a Jim Crow mining town to post-war white flight.  She brings an eclectic education to the page, drawing variously on the Eagles, Laura Ingalls Wilder, James Baldwin, Alexander Graham Bell, Joan Didion, religious pamphlets, and reality television shows.

These spare, sometimes lyric essays explore the legacy of race in America, artfully revealing in intimate detail how families, schools, and neighborhoods participate in preserving racial privilege.  Faced with a disturbing past and an unsettling present, Biss still remains hopeful about the possibilities of American diversity, “not the sun-shininess of it, or the quota-making politics of it, but the real complexity of it.” rating: 4.3 stars

Drunk review: Thought-provoking, but not the most emotionally arresting. Asks a bunch of important questions, but could use more humanity, in my opinion.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (novel) description:

One of the most universally loved and admired English novels, Pride and Prejudice was penned as a popular entertainment. But the consummate artistry of Jane Austen (1775–1817) transformed this effervescent tale of rural romance into a witty, shrewdly observed satire of English country life that is now regarded as one of the principal treasures of English language.

In a remote Hertfordshire village, far off the good coach roads of George III’s England, a country squire of no great means must marry off his five vivacious daughters. At the heart of this all-consuming enterprise are his headstrong second daughter Elizabeth Bennet and her aristocratic suitor Fitzwilliam Darcy — two lovers whose pride must be humbled and prejudices dissolved before the novel can come to its splendid conclusion. rating: 4.5 stars

Drunk review: Did you know this was a satire? Me neither! It works as a straight love story or a critique of English society, and either way it’s a gem.

Real Farm: Encounters with Perception by Patricia Tichenor Westfall (memoir) description:

When the author and her husband, a city-bred couple, could not find housing at the University of Iowa (where Mark worked toward a Ph.D., and both taught), they bought a farm. The 20 acres were eroded and overgrazed, too hilly for crops; the outbuildings were in shambles, but there was a working windmill to pump water. Westfall has written an engaging account of life on the farm and the perhaps inevitable outcome. Mark dreamed of self-sufficiency, of an idealized “Mother Earth” existence; the author, a realist, wanted a few chickens. They acquired the poultry, three goats and a pair of geese; they planted 2000 saplings to combat erosion and to provide a cash crop. After the marriage broke up, the author continued to farm alone. As she copes with a tornado that kills all but one of the chickens, failure of the well and installing an electric pump to replace the windmill, she muses on her own and civilization’s concept of time.

Drunk review: Zzzzzzzzzzz . . . Fine, it has its moments, but for such an introspective (zzz) book, I didn’t feel like I knew Westfall. Nor did I care.

Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools by Jonathan Kozol (nonfiction) description:

For two years, beginning in 1988, Jonathan Kozol visited schools in neighborhoods across the country, from Illinois to Washington D.C., and from New York to San Antonio. He spoke with teachers, principals, superintendents, and, most important, children. What he found was devastating. Not only were schools for rich and poor blatantly unequal, the gulf between the two extremes was widening—and it has widened since.  The urban schools he visited were overcrowded and understaffed, and lacked the basic elements of learning—including books and, all too often, classrooms for the students.

In Savage Inequalities, Kozol delivers a searing examination of the extremes of wealth and poverty and calls into question the reality of equal opportunity in our nation’s schools. rating: 4.3 stars

Drunk review: READ IT. It’ll break your heart and (probably) make you question everything. Should be required reading for humanity. READ IT.

Shouldn’t You Be in School? (All the Wrong Questions, Book 3) by Lemony Snicket (novel) description:

Is Lemony Snicket a detective or a smoke detector?
Do you smell smoke? Young apprentice Lemony Snicket is investigating a case of arson but soon finds himself enveloped in the ever-increasing mystery that haunts the town of Stain’d-by-the-Sea. Who is setting the fires? What secrets are hidden in the Department of Education? Why are so many schoolchildren in danger? Is it all the work of the notorious villain Hangfire? How could you even ask that? What kind of education have you had?
Maybe you should be in school? rating: 4.5 stars

Drunk review: My other fun book! This is getting its own review, because Snicket deserves it. Let’s just say you already know if you’ll like this or not.

The Unheard: A Memoir of Deafness and Africa by Josh Swiller (memoir, obviously) description:

A young man’s quest to reconcile his deafness in an unforgiving world leads to a remarkable sojourn in a remote African village that pulsates with beauty and violence

These are hearing aids. They take the sounds of the world and amplify them.” Josh Swiller recited this speech to himself on the day he arrived in Mununga, a dusty village on the shores of Lake Mweru. Deaf since a young age, Swiller spent his formative years in frustrated limbo on the sidelines of the hearing world, encouraged by his family to use lipreading and the strident approximations of hearing aids to blend in. It didn’t work. So he decided to ditch the well-trodden path after college, setting out to find a place so far removed that his deafness would become irrelevant.

That place turned out to be Zambia, where Swiller worked as a Peace Corps volunteer for two years. There he would encounter a world where violence, disease, and poverty were the mundane facts of life. But despite the culture shock, Swiller finally commanded attention–everyone always listened carefully to the white man, even if they didn’t always follow his instruction. Spending his days working in the health clinic with Augustine Jere, a chubby, world-weary chess aficionado and a steadfast friend, Swiller had finally found, he believed, a place where his deafness didn’t interfere, a place he could call home. Until, that is, a nightmarish incident blasted away his newfound convictions.

At once a poignant account of friendship through adversity, a hilarious comedy of errors, and a gripping narrative of escalating violence, The Unheard is an unforgettable story from a noteworthy new talent. rating: 4.9 stars

Drunk review: Despite being sick of memoirs, this was really compelling. If you want to learn about deafness, the Peace Corps, or Zambia, read this.

Waiting for Godot: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts by Samuel Beckett (play) description

From an inauspicious beginning at the tiny Left Bank Theatre de Babylone in 1953, followed by bewilderment among American and British audiences, Waiting for Godot has become of the most important and enigmatic plays of the past fifty years and a cornerstone of twentieth-century drama. As Clive Barnes wrote, “Time catches up with genius … Waiting for Godot is one of the masterpieces of the century.”

The story revolves around two seemingly homeless men waiting for someone—or something—named Godot. Vladimir and Estragon wait near a tree, inhabiting a drama spun of their own consciousness. The result is a comical wordplay of poetry, dreamscapes, and nonsense, which has been interpreted as mankind’s inexhaustible search for meaning. Beckett’s language pioneered an expressionistic minimalism that captured the existential post-World War II Europe. His play remains one of the most magical and beautiful allegories of our time. rating: 3.9 stars

Drunk review: Exhausting and dull unless you see it onstage, but pretty funny and thought-provoking. Get the DVD and read along to fully enjoy.

Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor (novel) description:

Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor’s astonishing and haunting first novel, is a classic of twentieth-century literature. It is the story of Hazel Motes, a twenty-two-year-old caught in an unending struggle against his innate, desperate fate. He falls under the spell of a “blind” street preacher named Asa Hawks and his degenerate fifteen-year-old daughter, Sabbath Lily. In an ironic, malicious gesture of his own non-faith, and to prove himself a greater cynic than Hawks, Hazel Motes founds the Church of God Without Christ, but is still thwarted in his efforts to lose God. He meets Enoch Emery, a young man with “wise blood,” who leads him to a mummified holy child and whose crazy maneuvers are a manifestation of Hazel’s existential struggles. This tale of redemption, retribution, false prophets, blindness, blindings, and wisdom gives us one of the most riveting characters in twentieth-century American fiction. rating: 4.1 stars

Drunk review: O’Connor’s a genius. This is disturbing, confusing and not a fun read, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it anyway. Movie’s good too.

The Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats (poetry) description:

Romantic and Modernist, mystical dreamer and leader of the Irish Literary Revival, Nobel prizewinner, dramatist and, above all, poet, W.B. Yeats began writing with the intention of putting his ‘very self’ into his poems. T.S. Eliot, one of many who proclaimed the Irishman’s greatness, described Yeats as ‘one of those few whose history is the history of their own time, who are part of the consciousness of an age which cannot be understood without them.’ For anyone interested in the literature of the twentieth century, Yeat’s poetry demands to be read and, what is more, to be read as a whole: this volume includes all of his published poetry, from the hauntingly beautiful early lyrics by which he is still best remembered, to the magnificent later work which put beyond question his status as the foremost poet of his age. rating: 4.4 stars

Drunk review: He can be too flowery and romanticizes rural Ireland, but he’s one of poetry’s biggest names for a reason. Lovely and surprisingly dark.

Hopefully you’ve found a couple things worth adding to your reading list (be sure to stop by your friendly neighborhood library for free versions of these books!).

Merry Christmas and happy holidays!


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