Book Reviews: Fiction & Literature

Listed alphabetically by author.

Dorothy Allison

Bastard Out of Carolina

A searing, white-hot novel of child abuse. Invites comparison with To Kill a Mockingbird [mostly for Southern setting and point of view], but this book is almost unrelievedly grim and a bit of a downer. Wonderfully drawn large cast of characters, vivid, memorable incidents, a winner. Memorable, even haunting. Thought provoking, too, though not necessarily "deep." A book to read again, definitely. 12/17/96

Jane Austen


A good, entertaining novel, sometimes too tedious for words, rarely all that amusing, but finally quite satisfying. Very skillful handling of Emma's misunderstandings. Some characters are very flat, some very colorless (the Westons in particular), but many are vivid. Emma is a complex character, not very likeable sometimes. A very ironic story . . . keep your wits about you as you read, and you will see more than meets the indolent eye. George Knightley is an admirable character.

I found this society [depicted in the book] both appealing and repellent: appealing in the good manners and desire to maintain good relations with all; repellent in the snobbery and gossip and so on. But I felt a sense of longing for a kinder, gentler, more gracious society than what we have now. Worth rereading, but not likely to become one of my favorites. [Perhaps too much of a cerebral exercise, not emotionally involving.] 9/22/94



A translation or perhaps a forgery of a Russian erotic novel. Unusual literary merit with surprising turns of plot, interesting and memorable characters, and psychological insight. Very well written. Unfortunately, the story is grim and almost relentlessly brutal, hence not greatly erotic. 9/23/89

Thomas Berger

Little Big Man

Impressively vivid, rollicking novel of the Old West. The scenes involving indians, notably the Cheyenne, are especially good. Plenty of action and humor, some sadness, but the plot is contrived, and the dragging in of all the old big names is unnecessary and distracting. Occasional gratuitous violence. The description of the final battle seemed overlong. Ending quite stirring. Nearly great, but some quibbles. 4/8/99

Charles Dickens

A Christmas Carol

Not what I had hoped it would be, but still worth reading. Characterization weak, with the exception of Scrooge. A few asides and descriptions of emotions were very effective. Worth a second look. 2/8/91

George Eliot

The Mill on the Floss

A good novel with fine characters (mostly) and decent plot, wisdom and comedy, and some excellent dialog and intense emotions. My only complaint is with the ending, which seemed quite arbitrary and a letdown, not at all the way you might think or hope it would end. Some very good stuff here. Only occasionally old fashioned and tedious. Occasionally obscure. Worth rereading. 2/5/92

Antoine de Saint Exupéry

The Little Prince

Occasionally touching and poetic, but more often cryptic and tedious. The message borders on pretentious nonsense: "What is essential is invisible to the eye"; "It is the time you have wasted on [something] that makes it important"; "You become responsible for what you have tamed"; etc. This sounds like recycled Kahlil Gibran---go read him instead. Might appeal to a whimsical adolescent. Best part is at the end, especially chapter 21, the fox. 9/22/94

E. M. Forster

A Room with a View

A witty, wise, poetic novel, somewhat like Jane Austen, though the plot and perhaps characterization are a bit weak. In many ways a good deal better than Jane Austen. I had a problem suspending disbelief re Lucy's failure to recognize her love for George, and also re old Emerson's final long speech, which was rather unclear and unpersuasive. But all up to Lucy's announcement and decision for Greece was utterly wonderful. Read some more Forster! 2/2/99

Thomas Hardy

The Return of the Native

Exceedingly well written and almost consistently interesting, though slow. Generally excellent characterization, but an extremely contrived and artificial plot. No letter is ever delivered on time, no important conversation escapes being overheard, no secret stays secret for long, and no heath is so vast that wanderers may wander unseen. Aside from the unintentionally comic plot, a brilliant and memorable piece of work. Eustacia Vye is a wonderful character, though I never fully bought her steadfast longing for Paris. Clym, Thomasin, and Wildeve are less memorable, though mostly interesting. The mother (Yeobright) was unappealing, though "all too true." Minor characters often amusing. The reddleman (Venn) is an interesting---even inspired---creation, though perhaps "too good to be true." 2/21/91

Ben Hecht

Fantazius Mallare

A strange novel, with little going on and a lot of rambling talk that borders on nonsense. The eponymous character is close to insane, and the book consists of little more than an unsystematic examination of the workings of his mind. I got bored and couldn't finish the last half, but it is not without interest. The style at times is not unlike fairly good poetry. The blurb on the flyleaf suggests that it is in the Decadent tradition. Read 12/25/00; reviewed 12/27/00

Yasunari Kawabata

The Old Capital

A beautiful and sentimental story, but the ending seems arbitrary. None of the big questions are answered---will Naeko live with her sister? Who will marry whom? Will the family sell their business? And so on. Only one situation gets resolved---Naeko and Chieko have found each other and reduced their mutual loneliness.

The book was tedious in spots, but overall very good. 3/3/88

Violette Leduc

Therese and Isabelle

An erotic and poetic incident. Reminds me of Flaubert's November, though much more explicit and less emotionally affecting. Many of the images, etc., are disturbing or unpleasant, detracting from the heated eroticism and lending a surreal tone to the whole. Slight, but readable. 11/21/89

W. Somerset Maugham

The Razor's Edge, The Blakiston Company, Philadelphia, 1944.

A so-so novel about values and success, or about some characters.

There is much that might be said about this book. Larry's (Laurence Durrell) quest for spiritual values (happiness and peace) verges on the simple-minded at times and never inspired me. The brief summary of Vedanta is nice enough, though. Elliott's (Templeton) quest for society is tedious. Isabel's life is the most interesting--very materialistic but longing for Larry. Somewhat old fashioned, but readable.

Despite Larry's quest for the meaning of life, and his 'success' in attaining enlightenment, I can't help feeling that he's just incredibly self-centered and selfish. We all have to cope with the hand we're dealt, but when he attained his dreams they led him to no good works. I can't accept the idea that Larry's life is meaningful or enlightened or in any way admirable. In the end he found peace--which is something, but there's plenty of peace in the grave. Great wisdom should be productive, not anesthetizing. 6/30/99

Isabel Miller (Alma Routsong)

Patience and Sarah [Original title: A Place for Us]

A wonderful novel. Excellent, vibrant characters, wisdom, touching moments, and stunningly beautiful [lesbian] love scenes. Only the section with the peddler was slow, a slight flaw in an exquisite gem. Even the alternating POV [point of view] came to seem correct after my initial dismay. Also a humbling book---there's an intensity here I find most impressive. It doesn't hurt, either, that there is little tragedy in this story, and no real villains, and perhaps no real surprises. It is simply a beautiful story that I may love 'til I die. 6/2/89

Round Shape

These characters are so vibrant and alive and so much themselves that it seems inappropriate to talk about characterization. I've never seen it done better; in part this is due to the shifting P.O.V. [point of view] (which I dislike [as a rule]).

As far as the "story" goes, there isn't much of one. But certainly the book kept me reading eagerly up to the end (which I thought not fully satisfactory). In all, an excellent and sometimes moving slice of life. Also sometimes wicked, even cynical. 6/5/89

Joyce Carol Oates


An okay novel, somewhat simplistic, occasionally exciting, touching, mostly involving, finally not amounting to much. Structural and stylistic peculiarities occasionally annoying. Worth reading once, probably; twice? NO. 11/27/93

Miguel Piñero

Short Eyes (play)

Dismal, pointless, frequently incomprehensible; long passage in Spanish. Juan's words in the Epilogue are pretentious and sentimental, a cheap attempt to give the play a moral. The only thing this play has going for it is a swift sense of pacing or plot (up to the contrived and silly ending). 12/13/88

Robert M. Pirsig

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

P. 190-194 interesting re teaching writing, though finally dubious. He should (perhaps?) have suggested writing about "a day in the life of your mother" or about "writing this essay," i.e., something not inanimate.

Gave up reading shortly after the above pages. The book is just too slow, "written all wrong." I'd have much preferred a straight chronology and less philosophy. Some good thoughts and stories diluted by too much tedium. Too bad. 5/8/98

Erich Maria Remarque

All Quiet on the Western Front

A very good, affecting, sometimes vivid novel which I listened to on tape. The reading by Frank Muller was exceptionally good, deserving highest praise. The translation unfortunately included occasional jarring British colloquialisms, totally out of place in this German novel. Consistently interesting. This might be a good choice for reading in German. 4/3/96

Alma Routsong

Please see Isabel Miller (Routsong's pen name).


Sappho: A New Translation, by M. Barnard

Not much here to get excited about. The poems are occasionally evocative, touching, or sweet, but mostly curious or dull. 8/22/89 [Of course, Sappho's great reputation will persist long after this review!]


Armance [Note: please read this review through to the end!]

A tedious and finally incredible novel with an arbitrary plot and gratuitously bitter end. Cause and effect seem curiously suspended here, and motivation is murky in these silly people. Characterization is weak. A disappointment, to say the least. Don't reread. 6/8/89

P.S.: The preface or introduction makes clear much that was incomprehensible, and almost makes the book worth reading. A second reading, knowing the terrible secret, almost might be interesting . . . but read something else instead. 12/28/89

A. E. van Vogt

The Null-A Trilogy

The first volume, Pawns of Null-A, is exciting, both as an action novel and as a source of ideas and stimulation . . . probably van Vogt's best book [though Slan is this by consensus of critics]. The second, Players of Null-A, has much of intellectual stimulation as well, but the plot tends to lag. The third, Null-A Three, is mostly awful, with little of interest on any level and some grotesque editing lapses [in the first paperback edition]. In each book the main character gets jerked around from place to place and the plot gets pretty confused. In the first book it tends to be delightful confusion, in the third it's just tedious. Characterization is amazingly weak for a series with many characters . . . even Enro and Crang are weakly drawn, not to mention the hero.

But the first book is full of deliciously stunning moments that make the clanking machinery in the background [the book was written in the '40s] bearable, and the philosophy throughout borders on the profound (third book excluded). 4/20/92

Shirley Verel

The Other Side of Venus [A review full of second thoughts---read it all, please!]

Adequate but uninspired tale of lesbian love. Narrative occasionally obscure; inclusion of French language no help. Too often understated, suggesting what should be explicit, backing off at critical points (ending). Characterization routine.

Readable, but not up to the measure of Patience and Sarah or Diana: A Strange Autobiography.

Actually, I recall being quite absorbed by it and savoring the relationship until the return to England. But finally I feel let down.

Now that I think back, I recall several moments when I was impressed by the writer's intelligence and wisdom. And quite often I identified strongly with the protagonist. But I never felt very moved, and I felt let down by the ending. It's a book worth a second reading some day, perhaps. 8/17/89

[Mary Jane?] Ward

The Snake Pit

Very effective, harrowing story of a woman's stay in a mental hospital. Very depressing! Characterization seems quite weak, plotting is minimal, but the stream-of-consciousness or interior monologue is very well done. Occasional overlong sections of fantasy. Not much here to enjoy, but it's certainly compelling and convincing. 2/4/91



This numerical allegory is mildly interesting, though too long. A few touching moments, some mild amusement along the way, but too predictable and too often slow-moving. Not worth rereading. 7/13/93

Franz Werfel

The Song of Bernadette

A very remarkable recounting of the story of St. Bernadette and Lourdes. Characterization is extremely good and many scenes are surprisingly moving. Scenes in cafes, etc., reminiscent of Tolstoy. It is unfortunate but probably unavoidable that the first half of the story is more interesting than the second half. Worth another reading . . . a very worthwhile book. 7/24/99

Elie Wiesel


A brief but agonizing novel about the author's experiences during the Holocaust. The events after leaving Auschwitz are hard, painful reading. However, granted that, I can't help feeling disappointed by this book, on two counts. First, the style is almost relentlessly bare-bones, and perhaps as a result the characterization is very weak. Even the protagonist's father hardly draws a breath. Also, I would very much have liked more at the end, especially some thoughts about his experiences, some wisdom to be drawn from this horror story, some insights, something of a larger view, if only a recounting of statistics about the Holocaust. I did appreciate his second thoughts along the way about his religion, but it would have been nice to get additional points of view.

Given the above weaknesses, and the vast amount of works about the Holocaust, I can't recommend rereading---read something else, perhaps Schindler's List [which I haven't read yet]. This book does make one think, however. 7/26/99

M. Wittig

The Opoponax [Read only to page 32]

I find I am reluctant to pursue reading this because the "story" isn't going anywhere . . . there is no story. It is a slice of life. That's not necessarily bad, but there is no suspense and I'm not too interested in what's going on. Some of the writing is quite evocative and picturesque, but the unusual style detracts rather than adds to the effect (as is usually true of unusual styles). The best thing about the book is the memories it brings back of my own childhood.

Might be worth a second try some time. 5/5/88

J. Yoshiyuki

The Dark Room

A forgettable novel with surrealistic touches. During the reading it is interesting enough, but really there's little to recommend it. The characters are indistinct, with the exception of the semi-lesbian who disappears about 2/3 of the way through. There are no memorable incidents and little in the way of philosophy or even sensitivity, except a kind of sexual inventiveness. Really, there's very little happening here. 6/5/89

Sol Yurick


A promising, challenging premise marred by an overlong, meandering treatment. Artsy-fartsy ending is maddening and pulls what might-have-been [?]. Lots of good stuff here, almost totally ruined by excessive pretension. What a pity. Such a promising idea, such a tiresome working out. 6/29/95