Both Sides: Flaws and Excellence in Every Book

4 Book Reviews

Ester Goncalves, Contributor

Like literary judges, we as readers must analyze the books we read. Of course, we don’t need to be so critical, especially on our choices for recreational reading. But there is the strong need for readers to analyze the literature we consume. Whether we admire the book or not, we must consider its qualities and its values, as well as its flaws and weaknesses.

On this tone of judgment, I will review four books I have read, two of which I loved very dearly, while the other two, not so much. The structure is the following: On the books I admire, the first column is what I think is poor or lacking, aspects I did not appreciate. In the other column, I will praise the book, telling why it is special and why I am grateful for it.

In contrast, with the books I did not care for much, the structure is the opposite. Exactly like our eyes: one side looks at the flaws, while the other must look at the excellence. Eventually, we learn to look at both.

All reviews are mine and contain no spoilers.

1. Review: “Bel Canto” by Ann Patchett

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Genre: Adult Literary Fiction (Thriller)

Awarded Orange Prize of 2002, this novel is set during a terrorist attack inside an opera hall. With a diverse cast of characters, including a soprano singer and a bunch of teenage terrorists with guns, this book is somewhat pleasingly written and easy to understand. There is a romantic atmosphere, unfolding a mystery, as if lightly touching the piano, to make some sort of music. Reading it all through, you realize how Patchett was conveying the message of relationships; especially amidst all the terror.

Now, “Bel Canto” is a hit or miss sort of story. It is indeed intriguing and “lovely” for some people, but for me, it felt as cheesy as a tuna melt. The love interest of this book felt simplistic and cheap. The only person everyone fell in love with was a flat character, who only enchanted them by her singing high tunes, but who herself was as dumb as a chair. She and all others expressed no emotions. They were crowded in a room with several different nationalities, but they didn’t have any deep connections. They moved about, talking endless monologues about government and why they loved the singer. Not to mention the terrorists, who were thin, weak boys, loading their guns as if to threaten anyone.
The whole story now sounds to me like a song out of tune.
Way off tune.

“It was never the right time or it was always the right time, depending on how you looked at it.”

2. Review: “How to be Both” by Ali Smith

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Genre: Adult Literary Fiction (Historical)

Also, winner of the Orange Prize, in 2014, “How to be Both” is a dual perspective narrative, playing with the flexibility of art and the impact of storytelling. Without any quotation marks, this novel can be rather confusing. First, you know about a girl’s relationship with her mother, and then back in time, in Renaissance period, following the life of an artist, who paints portraits for money. At times, I found some dull passages and some difficult scenes. Also, the writing gets complex, making it a blinding read, for which you might need some “new eyes”.

As I said, this book is dazzling in a way, but on the other way is implausible. The versatility of the language plays around like a painting in someone’s dancing hands. How can art be both confusing and beautiful? How can the characters be both mysterious and glamorous? Both at one, two at twice. This novel is truly a masterpiece and should be seen by multiple eyes.

“Art makes nothing happen in a way that makes something happen.”

3. Review: “Norwegian Wood” by Haruki Murakami

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Genre: Adult Literary Fiction (Realistic)
1960’s Japan, where the culture was oozing out on the youth, and studies were being minimized to problems. On this novel, an ironic young guy explores the lives of all others around him, ignoring his own troubled one. As a master of literature in Japan, Murakami conveys this gloomy tale in a poetic, yet simplistic language. The dialogue was well balanced with good descriptions, and the characters were fleshed out, as if in a photograph. This novel confronts unromanticized suicide, which is a big deal in Japanese culture. Murakami’s message about suicide was clear, and not approving of such an act. Ultimately, all elements tie together in a rather messy knot, but a knot that still makes sense.

Of course, this book has its values, for which I agreed and respected. However, I was left spiritless reading more of these stories, which analyze several characters around one, who you don’t connect with. The main male character was the most emotionless, static guy I have ever read about. His behavior repeated itself throughout the entirety of the story, showing no development whatsoever. Above all expectations I had, I was still lost in this story. I devoured it in a couple of hours. The only problem I really have is to whether I cherish this or not. If I dig it or leave it. I certainly agree with some of it:

“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”

And that is why you shouldn’t take my word for granted: this is a different book, for sure.

4. Review: “The Unseen World” by Liz Moore

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Genre: Contemporary Adult Fiction
A complex novel exploring family conflicts and hidden mysteries, “The Unseen World” is highly acclaimed for a second book by a young author. Set in the 80’s, Boston, a fierce little girl comes to term with her father’s deadly disease. As she grows up, she discovers the secret for which her father is now suffering. Even though the mystery is subtle, I thought it to be a bit predictable. Moore’s decision to build the plot around a climactic revelation seemed to lack story-telling skills. Another flaw I found with this book was the repetition of scenes and visions from the main female character. This repetition made me realize later how Moore tried to convey the character’s situation: the chaotic trauma of slowly losing a dear parent. This decision shows her wiseness towards the human psyche and true feelings. I fell in love with this novel for the ambition of style, how the writing conveys the message without being overwritten, and the fascinating atmosphere of America in the 80’s.
All in all, “The Unseen World” is for all. Whether you like intense family dramas or tragic journey of one’s life, this is for you. Appreciate it the way you want. Just don’t let it be unseen.

“All we are is eyes looking for the unbroken or the edges where the broken bits might fit each other.”