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I think Michelle Alexander’s preface for this book needs to be reiterated, especially for those who criticize her book for its premise, not its content to support that argument. Her book is not intended for everyone; it is for people who are aware of and against racial inequality in the United States. This book isn’t intended to convert others; it’s to mobilize those who know it exists.

In my line of work in the nonprofit sector, I work closely with the re-entry population and programs designed to assist them. I’ve befriended ex-offenders, some of them still under supervision, some even still incarcerated. Because I already have faces I associate with Alexander’s thesis, I think I processed this book in a different way that others who haven’t interacted with the correctional institutions would have.

It doesn’t serve much of a purpose for me to write a review of her book in the way that I do with other novels I read because I can’t assess it based on how convincing it was for me, so I’ll write this as a basic overview.

Michelle Alexander’s book is thorough and well-organized by chapter; a rather systematic researched approach. My only complaint is her last chapter, written to drive her arguments home, which is a little all over the place. Aside from the last chapter, which still manages to wrap most things up, even if a little less effectively than the conclusions of her individual chapters, it is a powerful, devastating book filled with highly cogent arguments. There is a potency in this book and urgency behind her words that I haven’t felt in other arguments.

Despite the fact that she states that she has a specific audience in mind, I still recommend that as many people as possible read this, at least from a critical theorist standpoint. It’s more than food-for-thought. Even if you don’t feel convinced by this book, I hope it enables all to question the system and the institution that structures and defines racial relations in today’s America. Please don’t write off Michelle Alexander based on the premise; consider the flaws in all facets of the institution.

 

 

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I wish that I loved this book. I really really wanted to love this book and have this be best book I’ve read this year, but it oversold its own depth and the result was disastrous. As I read this, I wavered between deep interest and profound annoyance.

The story is very penetrative– it delves pretty deeply into human nature. The best way to describe the plot is that it’s “sticky”– sometimes in a good way, other times in a frustrating way. Some of the devices Donna Tartt uses are great and full of potential, other times the way Tartt utilizes narrative to call attention to the greatness of the themes in her novel, is truly cringe-inducing. Tartt knows that she is crafting an intricate novel; she knows this is award fodder and underlines this continually. She skillfully draws parallels between art and literature, turns the human condition into something concrete through art, extends complex metaphors by the crafting and preservation of antiques to the fine textures of a human life led.

Yes, these are all great accomplishments. I am genuine when I say that I marvel at her craft and ability to do this. IF ONLY I could reconcile this with her writing style. Granted, I have not read her other two novels so I do not know if this is true of her previous works, but the verbose language became too much to handle for me.

Many passages in this book were like enormous buttercream frosted layer cakes of descriptions with too many adjectives; the layer cakes themselves covered in carefully-crafted handmade sugar ornaments in intricate shapes and forms, the kind from the bakery around the corner that was run by a thickset garrulous French-born pâtissier who spoke with an accent that surely indicated he was from Lyon, made where the frosting was the kind that melted on your tongue in just the perfect way, while the cakes covered in fondant created an unimaginable feeling of pleasure as one swallowed the sweet sugary multi-colored, sometimes-patterned dough.

… and that was just a taste (no pun intended) of Tartt’s style. Unfortunately, nobody ever told this woman that sometimes less is more. And just as the the language was overwrought, the plot was, too.

There were parts that I truly loved– I thought that Theo’s turbulent teenage years in Las Vegas were well-written. They captured his development into the troubled young man we meet later in the book. It was the heart of the book; it’s the part I found most compelling and the part that felt most true. Other elements of the book felt strangely anachronistic. It’s already very Dickensian (though most people are sick of this overused comparison) in that Theo is showered in misfortune much in the way of David Copperfield, but the similarities strike even closer– a collector of oddities (The Old Curiosity Shop), orphans (Oliver Twist), an unrequited obsession with a female character (Great Expectations). But the art world, the New York high society that felt almost straight out of a Baroque novel, felt so unreal juxtaposed with the raw free-floating existence in Las Vegas that Tartt captured so expertly. I found it too hard to reconcile the two, as his life at Hobie’s simply did not feel credible. But this isn’t the biggest problem for me– the storyline itself lead us through so many twists and turns, that the book was really more of a fairy tale than the story of a boy’s life. But even if these convenient contrived coincidences were her modus operandi from the very beginning, this reader, did not buy into it.

The last portion deals in clichés. She essentially has our protagonist force feed us readers what she wanted us to take away from her novel by having him sum up “what he has learned” and thus, what we, her audience should have learned. Donna Tartt is the Barry Bonds of novelists– she’s earned the right to congratulate herself, but is so in love with her own ability to craft and write that she loses me.
Here’s a quote that kills me: “Every piece of art is a self-portrait.”
if that is true, Donna Tartt is telling us through her novel that she thinks of herself as a literary genius. Let me get “meta” on this and say that this last self-referential statement was the last straw for me.

One short last statement from me:

Dear Donna Tartt: you are absurdly pretentious with a ridiculously inflated ego.

Dear Pulitzer Committee: I’m starting to lose faith in you. Have you read The Emperor’s New Clothes? I thought all you critics would know better. Go sit on the time-out chair until you remember the moral of the story and understand what you did wrong. In the meantime, I’m going back to reading the Booker Prize-winners.

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… When? (Part 1)

March 17, 2015

If not now, then… I am a huge fan of the blog “Wait But Why” and its primary written content contributor published a post last year about ancestry and the remarkable and un-mined histories of generations before us. Feeling compelled while looking back urges us almost as a reflex, to also look forward. What are […]

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Labor Day– A Review Just in Time

September 5, 2014

I went from being excited about this book, to feeling neutral, to feeling hopeful that it might have a good ending, to having to force myself to finish it. I was eager to read this book because I’d found out about Joyce Maynard and wanted to try her, then it was made into a movie […]

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The Fault in John Green’s Stars

June 8, 2014

The movie adaptation is out. Here are my two cents from the novel, which I finished a year ago. And no, I don’t plan to watch the movie. The best thing about this book is its title. That’s it. With a title that references Julius Caesar, I had high hopes. Yes, I belong to the […]

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An Empty Life

April 28, 2014

No matter what I think, write, or do, I always return to the eternal question: How does one life an empty life? A life full of nothing?  Extended post soon to follow. in the mean time, something to ponder…

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On Rape Culture Continued

November 5, 2013

Because for this generation it seems to be a never-ending battle. This is something that stemmed from the recent news reports on the “Roast Busters” Club– a club founded by teenage boys in New Zealand devoted to gang-raping girls as young as thirteen and shaming them as sluts on social media. The full story is […]

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George Zimmerman, Stand Your Ground Laws, and a Broken System

July 15, 2013

Literally almost every website is plastered with posts regarding the George Zimmerman Trial and its subsequent verdict, announced yesterday. I’ve read a number of interesting articles, a majority of which have not been completely objective in tone. I’ve always believed that news should be as objective as possible, but in a case where issues that […]

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The War on Women: Flashback to the 2012 Elections

July 3, 2013

I don’t like the word, “War”. It is a charged word, often a political tool (“war on drugs”, “war on terrorism”). I use it here as some left-wing media has begun to coin it: the slow chipping away of women’s rights. That’s what I would call it, but I suppose it doesn’t have the same […]

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The Simpsons on Fathers and Daughters

June 17, 2013

I often find myself writing about movies, so I thought for a change of pace, I would write about a Television Series instead: The Simpsons. Specifically the well-developed and poignant relationship between Lisa and her father, Homer Simpson. Both because it is Father’s Day and because it happens to be my favorite character-relationship on the […]

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