I enjoyed this book – it’s an entertaining memoir-in-essays by an Iranian-American author about her life, family, and navigating two cultures. Her book titles may be doing her a disservice by treating humor as her primary selling point; I would call this book amusing, humorous, and enjoyable but not laugh-out-loud funny. Of course humor is individual, and the stories are good enough to enjoy even if you don't find them hilarious.
There are a lot of good stories here. I enjoyed reading about the author’s childhood in Iran and the U.S., appreciated that she shared her disappointing and isolated first year in college (there is a lot of pressure on kids for this to be the best time of their life, but isn’t for everyone), chuckled at the misunderstandings when she began dating her husband, experienced schadenfreude reading about her worst day as a stay-at-home mom but admired her getting the TV out of the house, and was entertained by the ups and downs of life with her quirky relatives. Toward the end there were a couple of chapters that didn’t do much for me: one about her experience of giving a graduation speech essentially regurgitates the speech (complete with long paragraphs on why we should care for our teeth and read books), while another – a potentially great chapter about her meeting Kathryn Koon, who was held hostage in Iran in 1979 – fell flat, because neither the author nor Koon seems to have many feelings about this and so it becomes a chronicle of their road trip around Iowa and what visiting an Amish store is like. Also, the "gross foods in France" chapter is indeed gross.
Overall though, this is fun reading, easy to pick up for a chapter at a time when you’re busy. Nothing huge happens in it, but it’s an enjoyable window into the author’s life as an immigrant, mixing serious topics with humor.
I’ll begin with a disclaimer: this isn’t my type of book, though from its marketing I thought it might be. First, because while it has a fantasy plotline, the setting and tone are more horror-tinged paranormal, full of monsters and gruesomeness. Second, because it really is a young-adult novel, in the sense of being an easy-to-read, action-oriented adventure populated by simplified characters and featuring a 16-year-old Chosen One who is unrealistically functional for her age and life experience, with a heavy emphasis on People Are Different and That’s Okay. Adding a couple of sexual assault scenes doesn’t make an adult novel of something not written in an adult register; it just means your YA is dark and risqué.
At any rate, this book follows a standard fantasy plotline: Nettie, a mistreated orphan of mysterious parentage who is shunned in her town, discovers supernatural powers, loses her mentor, learns she is the Chosen One, and goes on a quest to defeat an evil villain. The setting is interesting – an alternate version of the Old West, specifically Texas around the 1870s – and the author tries hard to make the book diverse: Nettie is part-black, part-native, bisexual, and genderqueer. This effort is in my view only moderately successful: the characterization overall is not particularly deep or complex; Nettie doesn’t have any consensual sexual encounters or a relationship; and Nettie’s racial heritage functions mostly just as the reason people are occasionally mean to her. She was raised by white people and the only important non-white characters in the book are two native siblings who, in the traditional role of irritating fantasy allies, are much more knowledgeable, skilled and committed than the protagonist but inexplicably pop in and out of the story rather than sticking around long enough to be helpful, presumably because if they simply took over the quest there wouldn’t be much action left for the clueless young protagonist. But this is better than including no diversity at all.
It’s an action/adventure type of book, with a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter and even a literal one at the end of the novel (I read the preview of the sequel online to satisfy my curiosity, which does not extend to reading another book). The narrative is full of “cowboy” talk: “The Rangers were doing their level best to give off an air of relaxation and ease, but any feller with sense could see that underneath the calm they were jittery as junebugs at a jaybird party.” At least the author has committed to her setting.
Overall, this isn’t a book that did much for me; I’d have appreciated more interesting characters or a plot that contained more than a quest to kill a monster, with something or other attacking our heroes every chapter. But if you like dark paranormal YA with a dash of horror and don’t mind the standard fantasy plot, this book may well be for you.
This is a well-written, engaging classic with complex characters and psychological insight, though a depressingly predictable story. Published in 1905 and set in the wealthy New York society of the late nineteenth century, this feels in many ways like a 19th century British novel, populated by independently wealthy leisure types who spend their days attending house parties and gossiping about one another. But the protagonist, Lily Bart, stands out as a complex individual: aged 29 at the beginning of the novel and raised to a life of leisure, she doesn’t quite have the judgment or ruthlessness needed to succeed in that milieu, and the book is more or less the chronicle of her downfall.
This is an excellent book in the way you expect from a novel that has stood the test of time: Wharton has a keen eye for people and their behavior and motivations and hypocrisies; the book brings to life a particular slice of society in a particular place and time; and it is an engaging story, one I read to see what would happen next as well as for the polished style and complicated characters.
But the most interesting thing about it is the character of Lily. Even after finishing the book I can’t quite decide how to view her, and how much it is fair to condemn or excuse her. On the one hand, Lily has a massive sense of entitlement: she wants to live a life of ease without having to do anything to earn it. On the other hand, she lives her life surrounded by people who do exactly that, who inherited or married into wealth and pass their days showing it off. And by the standards of her society, Lily is more “worthy” than many, being naturally beautiful and socially skilled. (Amusingly, the concept of a “brilliant woman” and her “career” in this context refers to a beautiful, sophisticated woman and her social trajectory, more specifically her run as a husband-hunter.) Lily’s qualms about marrying for money a man she doesn’t actually like are sympathetic, but if she doesn’t want to live her mother’s life (her mother clearly not having cared a whit for her father as an actual person, while he was working himself to death for their sake), it’s frustrating (though believable) to not see her reconsider her mother’s insistence on luxury and social success as the measure of meaning in life. And most frustrating of all is the fact that she has so many options and opportunities to avoid her fate – and rejects all of them, because in one way or another none of them conform to her vision of what she wants herself and her life to be. In that way the story feels a bit like a Greek tragedy, where the character’s downfall is due entirely to her personality.
Yet it is a story that remains relevant today. Lily’s predicament is not so different from that of many modern folk who struggle with the sense that they are too smart or talented for the jobs or incomes available to them. In answer, Lily’s story is a warning that the world is largely indifferent to inherent worthiness; you still have to actually take the opportunities that are offered and work for what you want, not just expect success to fall into your lap.
So it is a book whose themes have outlasted the society that gave birth to it, and one that made me think. My biggest criticism of the novel is that for me it was an illustration of the perils of writing tragedy; because it was clear what would happen to Lily, to an extent I disengaged emotionally from her story. And it's worth noting that there is some anti-Semitism here, in the form of stereotypes and generalizations. But overall it’s an excellent book and one that I would recommend.