Monthly Archives: December 2010

200ish Word Review: Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America


It’s hard to do such a sprawling book any justice in just 200 words, but let’s try: young French noble (Olivier) is kidnapped and put on a boat to America by order of his parents, survivors of the French revolution, in order to keep him out of (political) trouble. He is accompanied by a reluctant English servant he hates (Parrot). Hijinx, romance, and personal growth ensue. We become (extensively) acquainted with their complicated histories. The two reluctantly become friends and achieve different understandings of America as a country and an idea.

It was beautifully written, with the kind of luscious language that makes me wish I made more time for poetry, and there were arresting set pieces along the way, but I was occasionally bored because there wasn’t a clear sense of what the point was. It never comes together to form a whole that is greater than the sum of its many beautifully moving parts. The last few pages had me thinking it was all about the American experiment: the way the country’s character (like a person's) is both its luck and its doom, but that felt a little tacked-on, a little like an after-thought. There was an idea in there somewhere about how our origins mark us (but, you know, duh). The whole thing felt rough, like somewhere in there is the story that wants to be told, but Carey hasn’t quite got a hold of it. So: it’s not a great novel, but it’s still worth a read, especially if you’re a fan of historical fiction. As Ursula Le Guin put it in her review: “Are there hidden significances? I don't know. It's a dazzling, entertaining novel. Should one ask for more?”



This Week in Books.

Remember that time I was like "I'm gonna do this every week!" and then immediately failed? Neither do I!

Let's talk NYTBR: since I last posted, the critics and editors overwhelmed us with their many, many best-of-the-year lists, so that we could run out and stimulate the economy. I, reader, am here to help you by telling you what the best LIST is.

This was a tough choice. Doesn't Major Pettigrew's Last Stand sound pretty much like an ideal book to drink hot chocolate to? Doesn't Goon Squad sounds really intriguing? Don't you want to go on vacation in Paris with Graham Robb? Is Freedom going to keep getting tongue-bathed by book critics? 


I'm going to give it to Maslin, because I'm reading Tana French's Faithful Place right now and it's the best thing that has happened to me, mystery-wise, all year. Kakutani is predictable and Garner is a little too non-fiction-y. So there you have it.

Here are all the lists (all the lists? all the lists!):

Janet Maslin 

Michiko Kakutani

Dwight Garner

The Top 100

The Top 10

A Book-Buying Break.

I am currently taking a break from buying books, since I recently organized my shelves and found that I have like a hundred books that I haven't read. That is not an exaggeration. For you, I have taken a picture of my Shelves of Shame (not to be confused with the Shelf of Despair, which is where I keep books that I will never read):

Shelves of Shame December 10

Basically, I can't buy another book until I've whittled my to-read section down to two shelves. SIGH. It's hard, you guys, it's really hard.

You'll notice my tiny collection of comic books at the bottom right. DO NOT WORRY. I have read all of them. I know: what a relief that I read Wanted. What if I'd been silly enough to use that time to read Don Quixote? That would've been so tragic.

200 Word Book Review: John le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

For the longest time, le Carre has been on my reading list. Why? Rachel Weisz. People, since way back when I watched The Mummy in 10th grade (please stop laughing at me), I have had a girl-crush on Rachel Weisz. She was so good in The Constant Gardener! John le Carre wrote that.

Anyway, I’m so glad this wasn't like the time I tried to read Robert Ludlum (of The Bourne Disappointment) after loving the movies. This book is a classic of old-school spy fiction, and it’s reminded me of how much I enjoy that whole genre. I went through a short phase during which I read a bunch of Graham Greene and Eric Ambler books. I really don’t know why I stopped.

Spy is an exceptional book because, and I hope I’m not giving too much away (BUT IF YOU’RE CONCERNED TURN AWAY), it’s totally un-triumphant, even beyond the cynicism you tend to find in other spy novels. Le Carre is writing about corrupt cold-war intelligence bureaucracies that uphold ideologies that are, on both sides, hollow and brutal. What effect does living a life molded by the demands and constraints of service to those bureaucracies have on a man? What is the role and what are the limits of redemption in such a compromised life? This book is haunted by ambiguity: towards heroism, towards patriotism, even towards love. It may be a short book, but it’s definitely not a light read. Oh, and obviously: it's really, really twisty and exciting.