Friday, April 24, 2009

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Arnold to his white classmates, Junior to everyone else in the “rez” (Spokane Indian reservation), was born with hydrocephalus, which is literally water--or cerebral spinal fluid--on the brain. “But cerebral spinal fluid is just the doctors’ fancy way of saying brain grease. … My brain is drowning in grease.” By some miracle he survives the procedure to remove all of this liquid as a baby, and by another he didn’t have very serious brain damage. Well, aside from his seizures in childhood and his forty-two teeth (“ten teeth past human”).

When Arnold becomes a freshman in high school, seeing his mother’s name on his textbook--they never got new ones at his school!--and a teacher telling him to get out of the rez prompt him to transfer to a 22-miles-away, white-farm-kids’ high school. A traitor to his own people and a fish out of water at this new place, Arnold has to learn how to deal as a part-time Indian.

Y’know, promptly after finishing this book, I went on Wikipedia to read something about Sherman Alexie, and his biography was just exactly like this. Down to the mother’s name on his textbook in freshman year of high school. Down to the favorite books--one of Sherman’s is Grapes of Wrath, as is one of Arnold’s. It made me wonder how much of this book is actually fictionalized to warrant the “A Novel” on the cover. One major difference I could come up is that Arnold is a “budding cartoonist” and it doesn’t seem Sherman Alexie is as well, or else he’d probably have illustrated it instead of Ellen Forney. (Oh! Right! It’s got random cartoons all over the place, which was quite funny.)

But anyway. The only way I can describe my reaction to this book is to liken it to Taren’s response to An Abundance of Katherines by John Green. She liked it well enough, but it made no waves. Same with me here. I thought the narrative, while not in my personal favorite style of writing, was tight and had a good, humorous beat, something you would expect at certain (heartbreaking) passages, but that nevertheless worked. It got a couple of laughs out of me. And it entertained well enough while it lasted.

But upon completion, I don’t feel like I really know any of the characters. Which is funny, since this is a character driven book if there ever was any. The vast majority took up only one dimension to me, at most two, even the ones particularly close and important to Arnold: his parents, sisters, his dad’s best friend Eugene, and so on. And whatever happened to that plot catalyst Mr. Something who pushed him to transfer?

So, I mean, I wouldn’t call it a bad book because it’s not. But I wouldn’t actively recommend it either. It stands as just average to me, as do many books, and so in essence it fails to stand out. It is probably a good thing it is like in its zillionth printing, huh? :P C

Little, Brown | 230 pages | September 12th, 2007 | Sherman Alexie's Website | Goodreads


Jen said...

Aw, too bad ^_^ Although the best thing about books is theres always millions more out there!

Anonymous said...

I felt exactly the same way when I read this book and I was completely baffled when it won a National Book Award.


To me it just seemed like a lot of telling and no showing. His friend (can't remember her name) announcing that she's bulimic, and so, what? It goes nowhere. The MC sort of made a side comment of (paraphrasing) 'Well, I guess everyone has problems or whatever...'

The same with the "dead sister" and the "angry friend." I felt nothing for any of them. It read like a MG novel to me, so simplistic. It made me wonder if it would've gotten published at all had it not come from an already beloved writer.* I don't know. EVERBODY loves this book, I just never understood the acclaim.

*I don't mean to be harsh to the author -- but one dissenting opinion won't make much difference for a book so loved. :)

Amee said...

This one has never appealed to me. And now I can't get the forty two teeth thing out of my head. I'm off to count my teeth. lol

Sarah Woodard said...

This book was interesting, but not amazing.

Elizabeth said...

Oh, see, I do love this one. And I actually don't disagree with most of your guys' criticisms, but they don't touch what I love, which is the sense that Junior has no good place -- not the rez, because he deserves better; but not necessarily the white school, because everyone in the rez deserves better and they don't understand that -- and all his attempts to deal with this fact go differently than expected.

Summer said...

I liked this book when I read it. It's really different. I thought it was heartfelt.

Maya Ganesan said...

Eh, I probably won't read this then. If it's just a BLAH kind of book (which I take it it is), then I'm not interested. Is it an absolute waste-of-time sort of book or is it worth reading at all?

ReaderGirl said...

Hmm, well I've been meaning to read this for a while now actually but I havn't gotten to it yet. XD Too bad you weren't in love with it though, that's always a little dissapointing for me. lol

Interesting review, thanks for sharing your thoughts! :)

Anonymous said...

Anon--I read this book last week and I felt the exact same way. I did like certain things--the realistic glimpse of the rez life, and I laughed out loud at many lines. I love Sherman Alexie's other work.
But this one was all tell and it seemed really flat. I'm glad I'm not the only one baffled by all the awards. I assume it's because of that realistic glimpse.

Melissa Walker said...

I actually LOVED this book! I laughed through tears, which is like the ultimate reaction for me--to anything.

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