The Prodigal Book Reviewer

When I first applied to library science programs, I think I was working under this unconscious, internalized stereotype of librarianship being an easy job, and library school being a breeze. This might have been exacerbated by my other experience with grad school, an MFA, which was basically summer camp with professors. Boy, did I get a reality check this past fall. Data curation! Cyberinfrastructure! Information literacy! It’s a lot of work!

The consequence of all this is that I haven’t had time to even consider the possibility of thinking about writing a book review since last September. I don’t want to give it up completely, because I love it, but for the duration of my graduate school career, monthly or semi-monthly reviews are just out of the question.

However, Aunt Lute Books was kind enough to send me a copy of Rosa Montero’s Beautiful and Dark last summer, and I don’t want them to have wasted their resources. Also, I read two other books this fall that I just have to tell you all about: Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge and Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs.

So: Beautiful and Dark. The novel begins when the unnamed narrator is sent for by her aunt and grandmother to come live in the Neighborhood, a dilapidated and threatening place where gangs of bullies roam the streets and the nightlife consists of bawdy clubs and bars. In stark contrast to the orphanage she left behind, the narrator’s new home is an ancient boarding house that her grandmother and aunt share with her uncle Segundo, his son Chico, and Airelai, a shrewd and beautiful dwarf woman who works with Segundo on a magic show in one of the clubs. Although there is a plot of sorts, the novel is, for the most part, driven by the narrator’s dreamlike navigation through the Neighborhood and its surrounding environs, gradually picking up bits and pieces of information about her family and the secret lives of the adults around her.

Airelai’s character is both the novel’s greatest strength and its most glaring weakness. The story is punctuated with stories (perhaps fictional) that she tells of her past – how she was born with psychic abilities, how she spent her childhood as a priestess, how she befriended a captured whale – and these stories both add to the novel’s surreality and make Airelai a fascinating character. However – and I’m sure most of you have already figured this out – the novel continues Western culture’s tradition of depicting little people as not quite human. If a little person isn’t ridiculed, it seems, he or she has to be imbued with mystical qualities. Non-little writers and artists can’t seem to bring themselves to portray little people as simply people.

Furthermore, the novel’s revelation about how Airelai spends her time outside of the house and the magic show will garner eye-rolls from any justice-minded feminist. You know how in It’s a Beautiful Life the most horrible, bone-chilling aspect of George’s dystopian alternate reality is that his wife is a librarian with glasses? And then many viewers are like, “wait, I’m a librarian with glasses.” If you ask me, Potterville was lucky to have a library in the first place, what with the state it was in. Anyway, Airelai’s big reveal in Beautiful and Dark is kind of like that.

So. Deeply flawed. If you can stomach that, though, the story is gorgeously written, and the book lives up to its title.

On to The Invisible Bridge! This novel is Julie Orringer’s fictionalized chronicle of her grandfather’s experiences as a Hungarian Jew during the second World War. Starting out as an architectural student in Paris, Andras is forced to return to Hungary at the beginning of the war and serve in the Munkaszolgálat, the labor service that was a substitute for military service for Jewish men, subjecting them to brutal abuse, disease, and starvation. What sets Orringer’s novel apart from many other Holocaust stories is its vivid depiction of pre-Holocaust life – indeed, the worst of the atrocities only take place in a breathless frenzy near the end of the novel. Until then, the story sweeps through Andras’s exploits at the École Spéciale, his intense affair with a gifted ballet dancer named Clara, and his gradual maturation from a naïve and nervous student to a self-reliant adult.

Although Orringer’s excitement at all the cool stuff she found in her research becomes a little too apparent throughout the course of the story, and although the prose gets somewhat bombastic at times, the novel is still very enjoyable – it’s the kind of deep, rich story that you can curl up with for days at a time.

As for Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, I think by now most everyone who keeps up with mainstream publishing knows it’s great, so I won’t belabor that here. I’ll just say that Tassie Keltjin is a fabulous character, and the Thornwood-Brinks, a wealthy couple who adopts a biracial toddler and hires Tassie as their nanny, are presented with biting wit as the type of clueless, privileged liberal you love to hate. One detail that I loved was Sarah Brinks’s casual mention, in one scene, of the fact that she owns multiple watches – enough, in fact, that she coordinates them with her outfits. Can you imagine owning that many watches? If so, I don’t want to talk to you anymore.

My biggest regret as a reader this year is that almost everything I read was pretty mainstream – for whatever reason, I didn’t end up seeking out much stuff from small presses, relying instead on whatever I found in larger bookstores. But that will change, oh yes. For Christmukkah I got Vandana Shiva’s Earth Democracy! In Berkeley I picked up the Prisoners Revolutionary Literature Fund’s Letters From Prisoners, and I just ordered one of the remaining copies of Yours in Struggle, which is now out of print. It’s shaping up to be a good year, if I can fit this stuff in around my term papers.

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5 comments for “The Prodigal Book Reviewer

  1. December 31, 2010 at 3:40 pm

    I never thought that Mary being a LIBRARIAN with GLASSES was really dystopian, or chilling; rather, it was a sop to their TWOO LUV, because, in the absence of George, she chose to not marry at ALL. Most men, I think, would LIKE to think that, in their absence, their wife would have remained single, rather than settling for some other guy. I think most guys would PREFER (Okay, most guys in 1945) that if they had never been born, their wife would just stay a virgin until death.

  2. ellid
    January 1, 2011 at 2:55 pm

    Cheap watches in different colors and styles can be found in stores from Macy’s on down to Target. Owning several and coordinating them with one’s outfit is no more a sign of privilege than owning more than one purse or more than one pair of shoes, or at least it was when I was growing up in a very ordinary, not particularly liberal, middle class part of Pennsylvania.

  3. Fat Grad
    January 1, 2011 at 6:19 pm

    Oh, that is my favorite part in that entire movie! Every time I see it I laugh until I cry. I think the best part is that – wasn’t there another guy who was interested in her in the real life? So what happened to him? He just disappears? That is the most anti-woman ultimate horror imaginable. So hilarious! Every time I argue with my partner or my kids get on my nerves by doing something crazy I think to myself – oh, but it could be much, much worse. I could be a librarian! With glasses! And my hair in a bun! Thank God my life is not that terrible! Ha! Anyway, thanks for the great book reviews. :)

  4. January 1, 2011 at 7:20 pm

    Thanks for the book recos! Here are my top reads of 2010:

    I’m always looking for new ones to read to my “to read” pile!

  5. January 6, 2011 at 11:43 pm

    Great reviews, Julie. I appreciate that you didn’t shy away from criticisms. They all sound like intriguing reads. I’ve been meaning to read Lorrie Moore for some time now. I think I’ll start with one of her short story collections before diving into A Gate at the Stairs.

    Here are a couple indie press books that I’m absolutely loving right now, if you find the time:
    What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us by Laura van den Berg
    Cut Through the Bone by Ethel Rohan

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