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Book Review Roundup, Pandemic Edition

The last three or four weeks, I've consistently read articles talking about how bored people are given all the time they have cooped up in their homes. I just don't get it. Between working, exercise, hunting for an online grocery service that has a delivery date and my own writing, I've hardly had any excess time vs. my normal routine. Still, I have managed to read slightly ahead of pace for my Goodreads goal of fifty books.

Here are some short reviews of a few of the books I've gotten through since last I posted:

Over the Edge of the World by Laurence Bergreen

I picked up this history as research for a current writing project, but quickly found myself totally engrossed. I think many reasonably educated people have probably been exposed to two versions of Magellan's story: the sanitized, Euro-centric, elementary school version where Magellan is the hero and "first man to circumnavigate the globe," and the version that paints Magellan as an imperialist, murderer and conqueror. In Over the Edge of the World we learn that the truth, as is often the case, is seldom so black and white. Magellan had noble qualities: he was disciplined, loyal, courageous; Magellan had bad qualities: he was rigid, occasionally cruel and prideful (which may have ultimately been his downfall). Aside from just giving us an understanding of Magellan the man, this book also does an excellent job recounting the dramatic ordeals faced by Magellan's armada. In my opinion, the riveting and harrowing story is as worthy as any of an HBO series. As one might expect from a sea voyage of this magnitude, there was hunger and terrible scurvy and foul weather. But there were also mutinies and battles and a Red-Wedding-style massacre. For anyone interested in obtaining a deeper understanding of one of the monumental accomplishments in human history (for all its triumphs and horrors), Over the Edge of the World is a fantastic read.

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

I picked this up on a whim: it's a classic, it's really quite short, why not? Mango Street is the coming of age novel centered around a girl named Esperanza growing up in Chicago. The novel is told in a series of vignettes that are often no more than two or three pages. While several of these vignettes were quite moving, overall I found the structure detracting from the whole. With each section so short, we could never fully "get into" any of the characters. Perhaps some of my disappointment had to do with going in expecting a proper novel rather than a collection of linked flash fiction; nonetheless, the result of my experience reading the book was only lukewarm.

Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

This is an entertaining and well-written novel that mostly centers on a divorcing well-to-do couple in modern-day NYC (the Fleishmans). The characters are extremely well-drawn and round. There is a lot of searing social commentary here, but what I found most impressive was how the author manages to have compassion for characters even as she's skewering them. Towards the end of the novel the book takes an unexpected but satisfying turn. Strongly recommended.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

This is a coming of age story of an African American boy named Elwood Curtis during the Civil Rights Era in Tallahassee. Elwood, a studious, hardworking teenager with a bright future, has his life turned upside down when he wrongly gets into trouble and is sent to reformatory school where he experiences all kinds of horrors and mistreatment. For me, The Nickel Boys fell into that category of book of "very well-written literary fiction that just didn't do that much for me." Elwood himself is an interesting, highly sympathetic character, but once he arrives at Nickel, the plot of the story felt somewhat predictable and the "twist" at the end of the book wasn't all that surprising. Make no mistake, this is a "good" book--it just didn't feel particularly new or fresh to me.


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