The Toughest Indian in the World: A review

The Toughest Indian in the World by Sherman AlexieThe Toughest Indian in the World (2001) is one of Sherman Alexie’s collections of short stories.

Find it on Bookshop.

It comes before his most recent collection (Ten Little Indians) but after The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (which features many of the characters who would later appear in Alexie’s novel Reservation Blues). It is also the first one I read. Unfortunately, I feel like it may not have been the best first choice.

Alexie is a wonderful writer, of whom I am a huge fan. His writings usually revolve around the lives of various Indian (“bow and arrow not dot on the head”) characters and their complicated feelings about the reservation they love while being desperate to get away from it. This collection of stories follows a similar theme.

The thing about short stories is they’re short. Writers only have a limited amount of time to explain everything and to develop characters. I don’t know how other readers feel, but I’m of a mind that I like Alexie better as a novelist because there is more time to get to know his unique characters and understand his (at times) complex plots. I found The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven to be more engaging because different stories clearly refer to the same characters–making them more dimensional.

Back to this collection:

As is true with any talented writer, Alexie does have some gems here. “Saint Junior,” “One Good Man,” and “South by Southwest” are especial favorites of this reviewer possibly because these stories most resemble the combination of acerbic humor and gravity common to Alexie’s novels. To take “Saint Junior” as an example: Alexie examines the relationship between a married couple who met at “Saint Junior” university and continue to choose each other every day. In the story, the husband goes to take his SAT’s wearing a traditional dance costume while, later in the story, his wife preserves the tribal tradition of making Salmon mush.

These stories are not passive. If anything, they are visceral. This collection combines elements of magical realism with painfully real moments of sadness and hardship in the lives of Alexie’s modern Indian characters.

The main problem I saw with this collection is that it remained distractingly distant. Most protagonists go unnamed, sometimes barely described, which makes it difficult to connect with either the characters or their stories. Worse, the stories alternate between nearly absorbing to disturbingly jarring. “The Sin Eaters” hauntingly presents an apocalyptic world where Indians are put through their own kind of Holocaust. This story is angry and, no doubt, important. But by the end it is too angry and too horrific, so that it became a chore to read the remainder of the book for fear of what other catastrophes it might describe.

Any fan of Sherman Alexie’s writing will want to read through The Toughest Indian in the World to get a better sense of Alexie’s work on the whole. That said, readers unfamiliar with Alexie would be better off beginning with one of his novels or perhaps a different story collection.

Easily entertained

Sometimes it amazes me how little I need to stay amused. I’ve been compiling a list of children-appropriate fantasies for work and catching up on book reviews. Surprisingly, it’s the most fun I’ve had this weekend.

This is neither here nor there, but I’ve finally started backing up music that only exists on my computer. I burned what has become my interpretation of a country music mix. (This actually translates to some folk, country, pop and one inspirational song.) It has stayed in my CD player all weekend and remains similarly engaging.

The Namesake: A Review

The Namesake by Jhumpa LahiriYou’ve heard this story before. Junot Diaz, Julia Alvarez, Anzia Yezierska, and Edwidge Danticat are just a few of the authors who have told their own versions. The story they all have in common: The immigrant experience in the United States. Each of the above authors tackles this subject from a different enthnographic perspective, but the pull between the old (native) culture and the new (immigrant) one is always present.

Pulitzer prize winning author Jhumpa Lahiri adds to this conversation with The Namesake (2003) the epic story of the Ganguli family’s arrival and assimilation into the world of the United States.

Find it on Bookshop.

The story begins when Ashoke and his wife (of an arranged marriage), Ashima, come to Massachusetts where Ashoke is a graduate student at MIT. The year is 1968. At the beginning of the novel Ashima is pregnant with her first child, a son.

In Bengali culture, it is common for people to have a formal name and a pet name (nickname). Ashoke has no problem coming up with a nickname for their son: Gogol. Unfortunately, due to a variety of mishaps and misunderstandings, the formal name proves harder to settle on and even harder to enforce. So Gogol Ganguli grows up with only a pet name–one that is not American, or Indian, or a first name.

No one really cares that Gogol’s name is so unique, except Gogol whose anxiety over his name is bothersome enough that no external taunts are necessary. Gogol eventually resolves to rename himself, but not after learning the life-changing story that inspired his father give Gogol his name in the first place.

Despite the vast period Lahiri writes about, the novel’s focus remains narrowly focused on the characters, especially Ashima and her son. Despite the authenticity that Lahiri brings to her main characters, certain scenes remain naggingly artificial–feeling simultaneously improbable and contrived.

Lahiri’s writing here (I’ve yet to read her short stories) is beautiful without being pretentious or overly self-aware. The story feels authentic and compelling despite the fact that so many of the cultural references remain worlds away.

Even more interesting is the fact that I enjoyed almost the entire novel despite having a strong dislike of Gogol and several of the secondary characters. (I’d say more about what this means in terms of the writing style/skill but I still haven’t figured out how that happened.) Despite my misgivings throughout the novel, Gogol does work toward redeeming himself by the end of the story.

Regardless of my nitpicks, The Namesake remains a must for anyone interested in the immigrant experience in America. Lahiri’s narrative hearkens back to Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex which has a similar scope, tracing three generation’s relationship with Detroit.

The Namesake deals with common themes but, as any good book should, Lahiri makes these subjects new and original with her unique characters and wonderful writing.

Possible Pairings: The Secret Side of Empty by Maria E. Andreu, Drown by Junot Diaz, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta, A Step From Heaven by An Na, The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan, The Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska


A couple of years ago I reviewed a book for my school paper. When I decided to start posting reviews on, it became my first. For almost two years no one thought the review was of any use at all. Today I was happy to see that someone finally agreed with my acerbically negative review. You can find said review (note I am not naming the book because it does not deserve the attention) and all of my others here, although most of them are also on this blog anyway.

Saving Francesca: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Saving Francesca by Melina MarchettaSaving Francesca (2005) is Melina Marchetta’s second novel. Find it on Bookshop.

Marchetta lives in Australia and, as her name might suggest, belongs to the community of Italian immigrants who now call Australia home. Marchetta’s first novel, Looking for Alibrandi was greeted with widespread critical acclaim and is now a standard part of Australian school curricula (meaning that Marchetta, a teacher, has to often teach her own novel to students). I feel that Saving Francesca is even better than Looking for Alibrandi, which might give some idea to how very good I think it is.

This novel, like Looking for Alibrandi, focuses on a family of Australian Italians. Sixteen-year-old Francesca Spinelli has a lot of limitations on her life. The worst might be her forced transfer to St. Sebastian’s, a former boy’s school that’s trying to turn co-ed. As Francesca explains “What a dream come true, right? Seven hundred and fifty boys and thirty girls? But the reality is that it’s either like living in a fish bowl or like you don’t exist.” Adding insult to injury, all of Francesca’s friends stayed at her old school, leaving Francesca with Siobhan the “slut of St. Stella’s”, Tara the “fanatic”, and Justine the “loser” as her only companions. Things only get worse when Francesca locks horns with the infuriating Will Trombal and Francesca’s mother, the usually vibrant and free-spirited Mia, refuses to get out of bed as she grapples with a depression that cripples not only Mia but Francesca and the rest of the family as well.

There is so much I want to say about this book. I love the story, I love the characters, I love the cover art for every edition I have seen. I love that Francesca’s voice is so unique and can appeal to just about everyone.

More important than any of that, the story is good. Marchetta tackles the issue of depression in a way that is new and effective. She never gets bogged down in presenting information that doesn’t relate to the story or the characters. At the same time, even though the depression plays a necessarily prevalent role in the novel, the story is about more than that.

While Francesca tries to make sense of her home life being turned inside out, she also starts to make sense of her own identity–something she never bothered to examine too closely at St. Stella’s when it became clear that her friends didn’t care about the “real” Francesca. Being thrown together with the other misfits from St. Stella’s, Francesca begins to find her own voice and her own place in the world. She also slowly begins to make sense of the boys at St. Sebastian’s. One of the best threads in the novel follows the evolving relations between the St. Stella’s transplants and their new, male, classmates.

Marchetta’s prose is vivid and to the point. The novel stays close to its main focus, Francesca and her family, to create a tight narrative that expertly traces the evolution of the characters in the novel. The story, narrative, and characters come together here to create one of those rare, arresting novels, that will grab readers attention from the first page through the last and still remain a satisfying read upon future perusals. Saving Francesca comes ten years after Looking for Alibrandi and, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, Marchetta spent the intervening years honing her craft to a rarely seen level of mastery.

Possible Pairings: Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating by Adiba Jaigirdar, The Museum of Heartbreak by Meg Leder, The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord, Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu, Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson, Even in Paradise by Chelsey Philpot, The Square Root of Summer by Harriet Reuter Hapgood, This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales, A Map of the Known World by Lisa Ann Sandell, The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin


The library’s holiday party was yesterday. My contribution to the festivities was not this cool cake (my supervisor brought that):


Instead, much to the chagrin of just about everyone except “Julie,” I brought a large number of fun size bags of Cheez-its. (Julie actually likes Cheez-its and thought it was a great party item, huzzah.) Why I brought them is a long story, why everyone was shocked and dismayed is shorter and more interesting to explain.

For the past two years I have brought brownies to the library’s big deal Halloween party. Everyone loves them and says they are the best brownies ever, which is one of the most amusing things in the entire world given how I make them so easily. So, lots of people were disappointed that I brought crackers instead of a baked item.

I first became aware of this when, below my declaration on the staff sign up that I would bring “lots of Cheez-its” I saw someone had written “Cheez-its?!!” The punctuation seemed to indicate a certain level of dismay. The handwriting seemed to implicate “Ralph.”

Being the person I am, I of course felt compelled to call Ralph out on this commentary, asking what was so bad about Cheez-its. His response:

“Cheez-its are fine, but I was so surprised that you were bringing them. That’s like the Queen Mother saying she’s bringing nachos funyuns.” [Thanks to jennylish for the correction!]

Clearly, I am amazing since even when I’m being insulted for my party contributions it turns into a compliment.

“Can we be done now?” (A CLW review of “Clementine”)

Clementine by Sarah Pennypacker, illustrated by Marla FrazeeIt might seem odd to call Clementine (2006) by Sara Pennypacker (with illustrations by Marla Frazee) a chick lit book. Chick lit does not conventionally refer to children’s literature, it barely makes it into the young adult genre. But, when I say chick lit I don’t mean a romantic comedy book. Instead I am referring to a novel written by a woman with an empowered female protagonist. Using this modern definition of chick lit, Clementine definitely fits the bill.

Find it on Bookshop.

When the book starts, third-grader Clementine is having a not-so-good day at school. Okay, fine. It’s more like a not-so-good week. Really, it might be a downright bad week. (Incidentally, the story style here might remind readers of “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” a picture book, written by Judith Viorst and illustrated by Ray Cruz, in which a boy slightly younger than Clementine works his way through a lousy day of his own.) It starts when Clementine has to miss out on recess to catch up on writing in her journal (she hates her journal) and only gets worse when she tries to help her best-friend Margaret, a girly fourth-grader, get gum out of her hair.

Clementine is used to getting in trouble and spending time with the principal of her school though so she tries to make the best of the situation, which in the fine tradition of children’s literature eventually brings Clementine out on top. The whole “trouble” aspect of the book is the only thing that bothers me about this series. Other reviewers often refer to Clementine as a child with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or similar problems, which I find irritating because it is not accurate and is, frankly, merely the problem-du-jour that drug companies are using as excuse to medicate children. The anarchist in me also rankles at the idea of a child as young as Clementine being sent to the principal for asking questions and being otherwise engaged with her surroundings. (I noticed that this aspect of plot was already mellowed in the second book in the series The Talented Clementine which leads me to believe I am not alone in my criticism).

Here’s what Clementine is really like: an exuberant, imaginative, creative child. Clementine’s teachers often accuse her of not paying attention, but as Clementine points out she notices lots of things that no on else even thinks to watch for. That’s on top of her great ideas that just pop into her head.

If you aren’t in love with this little girl yet, you will be once you start the book. The story is what I would consider a lower-level chapter book. The chapters are a few pages, but the print is large and broken up by Frazee’s wonderful illustrations that really bring Clementine and her family to life making this book ideal for a child to try to read themselves or to work through with a grown up.

Pennypacker does a great job here of capturing a real authenticity in Clementine’s narration. Her prose is child-like with a keen sense of perception and, even better, empathy and humor (readers never learn the name of Clementine’s baby brother because she insists on calling him names like “Rutabega” because it’s the only thing worse than being named after a fruit). Comparisons have been made between Clementine and Beverly Cleary’s Ramona. I am inclined to agree with the comparison and hope that Clementine will have the same staying power that Ramona has been lucky enough to enjoy.

Temping Fate: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Temping Fate by Esther FriesnerTemping Fate (2007) by Esther Friesner has a misfit female protagonist, cute guys, and relationship-related mayhem. Happily, the story also fits into my more encompassing, feminist-informed, definition of chick lit in that the heroine of the novel is funny, smart and independent.

Ilana Newhouse is desperate for a summer job. Any summer job. So, she doesn’t worry too much when the temp agency that hires her proves to be a little . . . strange. It turns out that Ilana is temping for The Fates of ancient Greek fame.

Chaos ensues as Ilana tries to navigate the complexities of her new job with the Fates while helping prepare for her Bridezilla-sister’s upcoming wedding. Add in some fun co-workers, spastic gods and goddesses and this book has all the makings for an entertaining read. Happily, at the same time, the story does have some twists and turns to keep things interesting.

This book gets major points for putting ancient Greek gods (and some other myths from other countries) into a modern setting and preserving their integrity. The gods that we meet in the story are convincing characters and they work perfectly in the modern environment. It’s the first book I have read in a while that can claim as much.

Furthermore, the story is hysterical. Ilana is a true oddball and following the plot through her point of view is a lot of fun. Friesner had me laughing out loud several times during the reading of this story. Some of the characters come off more like cartoons than “real” people, but that’s probably to be expected of a story like this. Friesner introduces some great characters in a fun, upbeat story that readers will definitely want to see again.

Possible Pairings: Antigoddess by Kendare Blake, Freya by Matthew Laurence, Once a Witch by Carolyn MacCullough, Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips, Starry Nights by Daisy Whitney


I have been a clerk in the nypl for one year. My probationary period is over. I have made it. I just felt like sharing that.

A word on some new technology

Google has a book search page now as part of its plan to take over the internet one niche at a time. Google has been scanning books to put online–the books are out of copyright–as one of several efforts to make resources more accessible (and take over the internet). This blog has started coming up for several books on that site which I find amusing and exciting.

The project has some people worrying about the fate of libraries, but I think that’s silly. The internet is never going to replace regular mail completely. It will never replace going to the movies. There is no reason to assume that the internet will replace libraries or books. These things are all very different and work better in tandem than any of them could work separately.

Similarly, there’s been a lot of buzzing in recent years about Satellite radio. It supposedly has better music quality and it doesn’t have commercials. Instead of dealing with commercials of varying levels of annoyance, you pay a monthly subscription fee for the right to listen to the satellite radio stations. Sirius has started advertising, presumably for the holiday rush, with a commercial showing a cassettes, 8 tracks, CDs and other forms of musical storage being knocked down like dominoes and landing at the feet of a their new device which is a handheld radio listener (that sounds ridiculous, what I mean is a device not meant for the car as their previous efforts have been). This commercial is very similar to a Verizon commercial for their Venus phone, but that’s another story.

The Sirius commercial seems to mark the beginning of a new era. But I remain skeptical. Some things it makes sense to pay for: books, CDs or music files, DVDs. It doesn’t make sense to pay for the radio–an inherently ephemeral medium. When a song is over on the radio, it’s gone. You cannot hold on to it. You cannot possess it. There is no lasting way to own the radio, it’s all just temporary. Why bother to pay for something you can’t even keep forever?

(Along these lines, of course, it also makes no sense to pay for TV. Unfortunately, TV companies made that impossible by promoting cable and satellite service and not maintaining strong signals for people who used antennas to watch “regular” TV without cable or satellite services. One day that might happen with radio as well, but not today.)

Along those lines,  I can’t see books ever going out of style. Reading a book claims it. Each turn of a page, to me, implies ownership. Even if the book is not yours forever, it is yours while you are reading it. You possess it in a way that you cannot possess a ebook. Scrolling through a file will never be the same as turning a page. It will never assert ownership in the same way. You work through a book by reading along a page and moving on. You scroll through an ebook by moving the text as you go. Books will always have a place in the world because people like knowledge they can hold on to, something they can claim. You can’t claim an object if you can’t even hold it.