Book Review: Winter Break Edition

Hope you had a great break and start to the new year. Perhaps you’ve set some resolutions to expand your brain, like making a bookshelf bigger because you have more books to put on it. Maybe you just want to make the start of your spring semester even more packed than it already is. Or you fit neither of these descriptions but have a few minutes to kill at the moment.  

In any case, below are a few more books that I added to my mental catalogue over break. I have included a spoiler-free summary of my feelings toward these books, as a treat [insert Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Maui in Disney’s 2016 Moana here]. 

For your at-a-glance satisfaction, I am using the Goodreads™ rating system:

5 stars: it was amazing

4 stars: really liked it

3 stars: liked it

2 stars: it was okay

1 star: did not like it


written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Dave Gibbons

5 of 5 stars

The classic 1987 graphic novel (of which there exists an excellent – and recent – television show existing in the same universe in the present day. This new story adds a new level – nay, I dare say completes – one of the characters from this graphic novel and adds a necessary dimension to the universe of this original, both of which are commendable, rare feats. Now back to the book). The back cover speaks:

“Watchmen is peerless.” – Mikal Gilmore, Rolling Stone

“A brilliant piece of fiction.” – Richard Gehr, The Village Voice

“The first great humane act in superhero comics.” – Steve Edgell, Escape

“This is the book that changed an industry and challenged its medium. If you’ve never read a graphic novel, then WATCHMEN is the one to start with. And even if you have, it’s time to read it again.” 

I wholeheartedly echo these sentiments. The storytelling and artistic choices of Watchmen are stunning. The way the story is framed (literally and figuratively) is filled with so much care and consideration; I can’t help but think it’s a masterwork. There are so many different modes of storytelling, characters, and tropes, where each element is interesting and unique and then put all together it is greater than the sum of its excellent parts. I can gush endlessly about Watchmen, but for your sake and mine, I’ll end my endorsement of it here. Available in the Olin College Library. 

The Idiot 

by Elif Batuman 

5 of 5 stars

I love everything about this book. I love the way the narrative was set up in sort of vignettes from the protagonist. And I love the protagonist through her thoughts about the ongoings of her lived and emotional life. I love the idea Batuman explores both through the protagonist and through the process of me (the reader) becoming acquainted with the protagonist: about how we can fall in love with people through their written accounts and written correspondence and how at the same time, communication in person can be awkward. Is it the version of ourselves that we can communicate through writing that is more Real and True, or the version of ourselves that communicates to others in person that is more Real and True? Is this a question that is even worth asking, and if it is, does the answer matter? (something something, Plato’s Theory of Forms, something something) What do you do with the love you have for an idea that is not projected perfectly, or even closely, into reality? Is learning what to do with that love part of “growing up”? Is our ability to project ideas perfectly into reality limited by language, the framework we use in order to convey ideas? Or is it simply a matter of finding the right words at the right moment in the right language?

In some ways, I felt that this book was written for me. I am a math student in college that had a recent semester abroad in Hungary who spends a lot of time reading the words of others. Maybe that personal profile resonates particularly well with certain characters in this story. Maybe my meeting with this book was serendipitous: some stars aligned, I happened to have the exact life I have had up until this point and encountered this book at exactly the time that I did and everything just worked. What I’m trying to say is that maybe this book is not for you (maybe I am possessive). Maybe you will read this book and think it is long and the characters are annoying and The Worst and holy-crap-nothing-even-happens-and-no-one-does-anything and don’t-even-get-me-started-on-emotional-immaturity. Maybe you don’t love the protagonist, maybe you don’t love the book. If that ends up being the case, that’s okay. But you know, I don’t think this book was written for me, so I think you might love it, too. (CORNY! BOOOO!)

The Left Hand of Darkness 

by Ursula K. Le Guin 

5 of 5 stars

Bro. Are you kidding me. The hat trick? Ridiculous. At this point, I’m three for three over winter break. Yeah my break was good, thanks. Le Guin’s worldbuilding radiates with her love for her imagined world, created from loving observations of ours. Her love is not uncritical, rather the sort of love that is there despite the flaws, but still treats them as such. A creator’s love, perhaps? It did take me a while to really get into the world she had created, but once I got there, it was a fascinating one to explore. I think it would be both unfair and wrong to map her imagined world directly to ours; however, she does get to the core items. It takes vulnerability, open communication, and mutual trust to get to understanding, and we owe it to one another to acknowledge our differences and work towards that understanding. And it is important that these differences are not necessarily items to be resolved. Can you meaningfully change someone without meaningfully changing yourself, if we are all different sides of the same coin? Or forget duality, if we are all individual differentials on the same continuum? We can all be better for one another; we make each other better by being there for each other despite all of our flaws (our differences), because of our flaws (our shared ground), by acknowledging that not all flaws are necessarily flaws (our changing perception), by believing that we can all be better. 

Phew. Corny. Jeez. THE POINT IS, I highly recommend this book. Also, forget all the “lessons” and “themes”, it’s a well-crafted universe, a joy to explore, an intriguing story and plot. But actually don’t forget the “lessons” and “themes”, because those are important, too.

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community

by Robert D. Putnam

2 of 5 stars

Since my previous three books were rated so high, it might be kind of jarring to see such a “low” star rating for this one. I will take the opportunity to remind you that 2 of 5 stars is not only my subjective opinion but also that it means I thought the book was okay. So, on a scale of 0 to 100, this would be like a 75, as opposed to a 40. 

This book is meticulously researched, with its central claims painstakingly supported by graphs and findings from a multitude of studies. The discussion of these graphs is well-done and specific: Putnam is careful in making claims, and is also careful to clarify what he is not claiming. All of this is well and good. However, this book was a slog to read through. The careful specificity and individually outlined variables were intentioned to make his claims robust, which they did, but they also made them dreadfully repetitive to read. It didn’t help his case that his claims were ones I already believed and believed easily; he was merely showing me many, many numbers and metrics by which this belief could be backed up (That isn’t to say that believed claims shouldn’t be questioned, nor is it to say that the methods were beyond reproof. All I am saying is that the manner in which it was presented felt repetitive, especially given that I was already following what he was saying). I find that I am most compelled by hard statistics when I have a specific anecdotal narrative to attach them to, a tactic often employed in many recent non-fiction books. The times when Putnam employed that tactic made his book noticeably more readable.

Putnam was most compelling when he offered his analysis through truisms, statements such as:

“There may be nearly as many fans in the political stadium nowadays, but they are not watching an amateur or even semi-pro match. Whether the slick professional game they have become accustomed to watching is worth the increasingly high admission price is another matter.” 


“American nostalgia in the late twentieth century is no run-of-the-mill, rosy-eyed remembrance of things past. It is an attempt to recapture a time when public-spiritedness really did carry more value and when communities really did “work”.”

Putnam’s chapters on television and politics felt especially poignant today, so much so that at times they felt prophetic. These chapters highlight his astute observational and analytical skills, which are not hidden in the rest of the book where they are simply less interesting.

In the 20 years that have passed since this book’s initial publication, we’ve witnessed so much change: earth-shaking events like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the internet and personal computer becoming ubiquitous, the election of President Barack Obama, improvements in overall societal attitudes towards marginalized groups, the conversion of national politics and mass media into relentless sources of entertainment, and the commodification of lifestyle, to name a few. Even with no knowledge of these events, this book offers an explanation for why things have trended in the way that they did, and issues a well-intentioned plea to not forget the importance and impact of community. I cannot say that I loved or even liked reading this book, though at the same time I cannot say I did not like the book, nor can I claim that its message and insights are unimportant. It was okay. 

I’ll be reading the following titles sometime in the (hopefully near) future, dependent on the amount of free time I end up having (yes…priorities):

  • Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener
  • Against Everything by Mark Greif
  • To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov

Even if I forget to reply to you, I enjoy hearing about books you’ve read or your opinions on the aforementioned books. 

I’ll end this review with some (relatively) shorter reads that have really stuck with me. In my opinion, all of them are essential reading. As an aside — the amount of incredible work out there floors me. It is overwhelming in a way; I am incredibly grateful that this is the case. Seriously, each one of these pieces made my world bigger:

  • On Keeping a Notebook by Joan Didion
  • My Instagram by Dayna Tortorici
  • The Art of Dying by Peter Schjeldahl
  • A Common Seagull by Sheila Heti
  • Elizabeth Wurtzel Confronts Her One-Night-Stand of a Life by Elizabeth Wurtzel
  • The Fog of Rudy by Jonathan Mahler
  • Would you please please please please please please please stop talking? by Wyatt Willilams
  • Under the Weather by Ash Sanders
  • What is Monoculture? by Kyle Chayka

Happy reading!

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