Community Columns

Reviewing books by the numbers

I was looking over one of the best-seller lists and saw that I had read several of the books. Here’s my take on a few. I’ll pass on “The Girl With … ” and “The Girl Who … “; they’ve been amply reviewed.

‘The Art of Racing in the Rain’ by Garth Stein was heavily recommended. I thought it was just OK. I didn’t mind the dog telling the story; I was suitably upset by what happened to the guy’s family and I was, in fact, caught up in it. But then “plot convenience” entered the picture and as solutions to the many problems began miraculously to fall into place I became impatient. When the dog snatched the evilly intentioned “important papers” from Denny’s hand and ran off so he couldn’t sign them, well, that was it for me. I gave it a 6.

‘Olive Kitteridge’ by Elizabeth Strout: This was really good; 13 short stories about different people in a small coastal Maine town, with Olive weaving in and out of each of them, often in a major role, sometimes in a smaller one. The snapshots of the characters, their internal and external reactions to the event or circumstance in which they find themselves, are compelling, if not always filled with sunshine and roses. The book, presented as a novel, won a Pulitzer Prize. It’s a 10.

Chris Cleave’s ‘Little Bee’ is a story about a 14-year-old Nigerian girl and how her unusual relationship with a young London mother begins and develops. There are some very troubling observations: ” … the rebels were playing U2 in their jungle camps, the government soldiers were playing U2 in their trucks. Everyone was killing everyone else and listening to the same music. … No one likes each other, but everyone likes U2.” The story has some grim episodes, touching personal commitment and very memorable characters. There was occasional minor agenda pushing, but not enough to spoil a good book. An 8.

‘Three Cups of Tea’ by Greg Mortenson and David Relin has been on one list or another for 182 weeks and has been sufficiently autopsied. I came to it late (the title hadn’t grabbed me), having finally been coerced by the book club, and liked it quite a lot. While the journalist, Relin, should consider taking additional writing courses, it remains an inspiring story — an against-all-odds humanitarian success, in the most trying of physical, financial and political circumstances, by a truly humble, dedicated and likable hero. A 9.

I was pleased to see Sara Gruen’s ‘Water for Elephants’ still showing up. It’s a wonderfully imaginative story — a circus background, different, exciting. We’d sent a copy to our son, a sporadic reader, and got an e-mail 18 months later. He’d finally read it and liked it; he had put it off because “the title hadn’t grabbed him.” (It must be genetic.) A 10.

And finally, what to my wondrous eyes should appear, but ‘The Pillars of the Earth’ by Ken Follett. “How long ago did we read this?” I asked my wife. “At least 20 years ago,” she said. Oprah and Hollywood strike again, but it’s still a 10.


Thanks, everyone, for the calls, cards and prayers while I was sick. As was so succinctly put in “Monty Python’s Holy Grail”: I’m not dead yet.

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press and a former member of Southold Free Library’s board of trustees. He can be reached at [email protected]