Beasts of No Nation: A Novel

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What makes a book good


Following her post about her favorite books she read last year, Laurie sent me another e-mail about her criteria for what makes a book good. It’s a great list and I thought I’d share it.Trying to figure out what I liked best got me thinking about what my criteria were. Just “I liked it a lot” didn’t cut it, because I liked a lot of stuff and it became hard to prioritize. So here’s my tentative criteria for choosing a “year’s best” (other readers will likely think of other criteria). Anything that scores 4 or more from these criteria probably makes it into my “year’s best”:The book was:Hard to put down.Quotable.Fast, fun to read (not a slogging chore).CompellingAlso I:Kept reading bits out loud to anyone who’d listen.Will likely reread it.Can recommend it to a lot of people.And it:Elicits a strong gut reaction (laughter, tears, shivers, outrage, etc.)Makes you think.Sticks with you long after it’s done (you keeprecalling parts of it months after you’ve read it, or you keep mentioning it to people in the course of conversation).By this set of criteria, Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala scored a 4 (checks next to criteria #4, 8, 9 and 10) whereas Knee Deep in Blazing Snow by James Hayford scored a whopping 5 points because I could put a check next to items #2, 3, 5, 6 and 7. But that’s just me. Maybe after a year of horror and complexity in the news and literature, I was just ready for simple, happy observations about goats and weather.Thanks again, Laurie!

A Year in Reading: Laurie’s Best Books


I want to leave 2005 behind, but I keep getting great stuff to post, so I hope you don’t mind. I got this great e-mail from Laurie who wanted to share her favorite books from amongst her considerable reading last year. I’ll be following this up with another e-mail Laurie sent me about what makes a book really good for her:I just read your Jan. 5th entry about “year’s best” choices by various people. I thought about sending you my list, but then figured you only wanted to post the lists of people you knew [Max: Not true! I welcome e-mails from anyone and everyone!]. I don’t blog, but kept a reading journal this past year and totaled 60 books (some of them children’s books). It was fun looking at it at year’s end and figuring out what I enjoyed the most. I began reading your blog about midyear, I think, and your posts probably influenced some of those book choices.For what it’s worth, the three top titles on my list were Cold Skin by Albert S. Pinol (Catalan 2002, English 2005), War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (1898), and Knee Deep in Blazing Snow by James Hayford (2005). Of those, my enjoyment of the last surprised me the most, because it’s a poetry collection. It’s also the only book of all 60 read this year that I’d recommend to just about anyone, kids and poetry-hating adults alike. The poems are short, unpretentious, mostly rhyme and are illustrated. Washington Post accurately called it “quietly lovely”. It precisely captures the minutiae of the seasons and farm life that even a sheltered city-dweller can recognize with a smile. Also in my top ten were Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala (chilling), Travels With Mr. Brown by Mark Twain (Letters to the Alta California 1866-1867), and Diary of a Spider by Doreen Cronin. The latter is a fun kids’ book.29 of the 60 were first published in 2005.For some idea of what those “top choices” were chosen over, the 29 first published in 2005 are:From Sawdust to Stardust – Terry Lee Rioux (biography)The Bradbury Chronicles – Sam Weller (bio)Bradbury Speaks – Ray Bradbury (nf, essays)Pinhook – Janisse Ray (nonfiction, nature)Beware of God – Shalom Auslander (short stories)Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro (novel)Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land – John Crowley (novel)Storyteller – Kate Wilhelm (nonfiction)Science Fiction: the best of 2004 – ed. Karen Haber & Jonathan Strahan (ss)Year’s Best SF 10 – ed. David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer (ss)Blue Dog, Green River – Brock Brower (novel)Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – J.K. Rowling (novel)Cities in the Wilderness – Bruce Babbitt (nf, environment)Dahlonega Haunts – Amy Blackmarr (allegedly nf)Wonder’s Child – Jack Williamson (updated autobiography)Cold Skin – Albert S. Pinol (novel)Beasts of No Nation – Uzodinma Iweala (novel)The March – E.L. Doctorow (novel)Diary of a Spider – Doreen Cronin (kids picture book)Don’t Be Silly, Mrs. Millie – Judy Cox (kids picturebook)Whales on Stilts! – M.T. Anderson (short kids novel)Best American Science Writing 2005 – ed. Alan Lightman(nf)The Highest Tide – Jim Lynch (novel)Knee Deep in Blazing Snow – James Hayford (poetry)Travels With My Donkey – Tim Moore (memoir)Animals in Translation – Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson (nonfiction)From Another World – Ana Maria Machado (short kids novel)The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion (memoir)Confessions of a Recovering Slut – Hollis Gillespie (memoir)Funniest were:Diary of a Spider by Doreen CroninTravels With My Donkey by Tim Moore (Bill Bryson meets Monty Python)Grimmest were:Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma IwealaThe Year of Magical Thinking by Joan DidionHardest to put down were:Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. RowlingCold Skin by A.S. PinolThere. More than you wanted or needed to know.Thanks, Laurie!

New book previews: Garcia Marquez, Iweala


Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a Nobel Laureate with a decent claim to the mantle of “greatest living writer,” has a new book out this week called Memories of My Melancholy Whores. It’s been out in the Spanish-speaking world for a year, so most folks have heard what this slim volume is about: according to the Times Online: “a respected journalist, breaking the rules of a lifetime to fall madly, anarchically, transgressively in love with a 14-year-old girl on the eve of his 90th birthday.” The review goes on to say, “There is not in this slender book one stale sentence, redundant word or unfinished thought.” But Tania Mejer in the Boston Herald writes, “To call Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s latest effort disturbing is an understatement,” and later, “every time I reflect on the story, I can’t help but think how unsettling it is.” In fact, the reviews across the board seem torn over this book – is it yet another transcendent example of Marquez’s writing or is it creepy? Luckily the Complete Review is keeping score and gives this one a B+. See Also: The Marquez scoop and an early look. Update: Here’s the glowing review in the Chicago Tribune that Pete mentioned in the comments. Amazing the disparate reactions to this book.23-year-old Uzodinma Iweala started his debut novel, Beasts of No Nation in high school after reading an article about child soldiers in Sierra Leone. The novel is told in the pidgin voice of a child soldier in an unnamed West African country. Iweala, who is American-born but has Nigerian roots, is already receiving plaudits from some big names. In an interview with MoorishGirl, Salman Rushdie named it “book he most enjoyed reading recently,” and Ali Smith in a review at the Guardian described the book as “a novel so scorched by loss and anger that it’s hard to hold and so gripping in its sheer hopeless lifeforce that it’s hard to put down.”

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