I have kind of been waiting for this to happen. One of the things with Netgalley is you get the books early and then the grown-up critics weigh in later. This happened recently with The Optimistic Decade by Heather Abel.
First, one of the things about reading a book early is you get the book before any of the validators on board. It could be a relatively obscure indy….or it could get reviewed in the New York Times Book Review. You’re forced to read it on its merits, and not on whether other people found it important.
The book has been widely reviewed, in fact, in all the big places. I gave it 3-stars, which is also the most common rating on Goodreads as well.
I had it in the “like but don’t love” category, like most readers on Goodreads.
I thought that the book did a great job of creating a sense of place and had well-done characters (with one exception). I liked many of the themes, I just didn’t think it came together as a compelling, thrilling read.
So what did the New York Times think?
Their reviewer was Zoe Greenberg, whose day job is in the NYT Opinion section. Of course, the Times doesn’t give stars, but I’d say their review is more positive than the unwashed Zeitgeist.
I thought the most interesting thing that Greenberg notes, that never occurred to me, is the parallel between the exodus into the camp and the Zionist exodus.
Is this a book about the failure of Zionism, an exploration of the limits of idealism or a literary coming-of-age novel? It’s a bit of all three. Most interestingly, it doesn’t just rehash the story of the Holy Land we already know, but imagines a new, subversive ending. Despite the emphasis on the land — its particular specialness and beauty — the devoted of Llamalo come to a radical conclusion: It’s not about the land at all.
Which is to note that there is a heavy influence of Judaism upon which the book draws. Greenberg goes on to identify the book’s focus on mitzvah–which are actions (often routine) which develop sacred significance–as the true test of faith, as opposed to occupying a holy place.
I agreed with Greenberg that Abel is highly perceptive as well as the rather jaundiced eye that Abel turns toward the book’s liberal activists, teetering delicately on the line between gross over-drawing and winking sardonically.
Anyway, I guess the New York Times did OK. HA!