Critical Essay (Book Review) Sample Outline:
A critical essay gives your opinion on a book, based on evidence (events, quotes, details) that is organized into categories (like plot, characters, setting(s) and style).
a. Orient the reader: give the author, title (in italics), and a 1-3 sentence summary of plot, themes and/or background. Don’t get into little details yet.
b. Let the reader know whether the book is worth one’s time and money. For this paper, you’ll do this via metaphor: compare reading the book with some other experience – then, after a colon, explain the connection. (“Reading this book is like sucking on a lemon: it’s intense and memorable, just not enjoyable.”)
a. Identify the best (or the worst) thing (category) about the book. Identify general trends. (“The novel’s greatest strength is in how each main character illustrates a different tension in American life.”)
b. Analyze how it is done: use specific quotes or examples. (“The oldest son represents the inverse relationship between being depression and trustworthiness; the middle son walks the line between mental intelligence and emotional idiocy; and the daughter experiences the conflict between ambition and compassion. To be more specific, …”)
Same as paragraph 2, but for the worst (or the best—whichever you didn’t do
already) thing about the book.
Break down all the various categories for the book you haven’t mentioned yet. Devote a paragraph to each. For example, you could devote separate paragraphs to plot, themes, writing style (points of view, language, structure, pace, dialogue), characters (one paragraph per character), setting(s), tone/mood, length, etc. (For a movie review, you would consider plot, themes, acting, directing, camerawork, dialogue, soundtrack, etc. Or for a CD: band history, lyrics, production (beats and sounds), each band member/instrument, song types (slow/fast, etc.), marketing, etc.)
Instead of just saying: read/see/buy this or don’t, identify an audience for this product. You might say that you think anyone with at least one good eye and a library card will love (or hate) this book. But you’d probably be wrong; some will like it, some won’t. Maybe the truth is that “sports junkies who crave quickly paced action and don’t mind a shallow plot and predictable characters will get their money’s worth, but those into exploring sophisticated emotions or just looking for a few laughs will find this book formulaic and forgettable.”
Categories for a Book Review: Note-Taking Prompts (grade value: 3 points)
Answer each and every one of the following questions on notebook paper. Allow about a half page each, more or less. These will be the foundation of your essay.
Note a general pattern here: you will first describe what the book does in each category, then you will give your opinion about how well it does it.
Background on Author and the Book
1. What is worth knowing about the author (qualifications, biases, other works, related stories)?
2. What is worth knowing about the book? (When did the book come out? Is it a sequel? Is it part of a certain type of literature? Was it a bestseller? Is/was it controversial? Do a certain type of people love it? Was it based on a movie, or on a true story? Etc.)
1. What is the main character like? (Male/female, age, attitude, problems, unique traits)
2. Is the main character believable? Likeable? Complex? Do you care about him/her?
3. Are the other characters believable, likeable, complex, etc?
1. What are the main conflicts or choices that characters make?
2. Is there action? Suspense? Is the drama more like a thriller, a soap opera or something else?
3. Does the plot happen because of the way the characters are (Is the plot “character-driven”), or because of outside circumstances?
4. Is it an interesting story to tell, with interesting events?
Setting (Where and When)
1. Where does the book take place? (If more than one location, name them)
2. When does the book take place? (If more than one time, name them)
3. Is the setting interesting? Do you like some settings in the book more than others?
Voice (Point of View and Tone)
1. What is/are the point of view(s)—1st person, 3rd person omniscient, 3rd person limited? Would you prefer if it were done differently?
2. What is the tone, or attitude, of the narrator? Is it interesting or annoying or not really noticeable?
1. Pace: Is the pace fast or slow or medium?
2. Is the book descriptive or spare? Are the sentences really long or generally short or mixed? How would you describe the author’s use of language?
3. Does the author do anything a bit unusual, with punctuation or organization or style?
4. Does the book show or tell, or both?
1. How is the book organized? Does it start at the beginning and move into the future, or does it start at the end and flash back? Does it reveal things in little flashbacks as it goes, like through a court case? Etc.
2. Does the structure work well, or would you have put it together differently?
In your opinion, for the story it tells, is it too long, too short, or just right?
What are the themes? For example, is it about class issues, race issues, romance, adventure, greed, growing up, dealing with tragedy, gaining self-esteem, brothers, sisters, mothers and daughters, the immigrant experience, etc?
Creatively complete the following sentences:
Reading this book is like… (compare it to something not related to reading)
The kind of people who will like this book are…
The kind of people who will not like this book are…
2* - American Lit
22 March 2006
A Woman’s Power
“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” This is a constantly revisited topic in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. Kingston tells the stories of five Chinese and Chinese-American women; some of which are passed down from her mother, while she herself creates others from her experiences. Although these five stories include ghosts, Kingston’s objective is not to scare the readers. On the contrary, her objective is to inform the readers of the ways in which the Chinese think, feel, and believe. Reading this book is like having a prophetic, riddle-like dream: one cannot help obsessing over it until they figure out what will happen and has a hard time leaving the subject alone. The Woman Warrior is a great read for any adult who is interested in Chinese culture and its affect on its members.
Perhaps one of the most notable qualities of this book is its propensity to show how the various women can assert power in their own way through silence or talking. One such example is when the narrator’s “No Name Aunt” drowned herself and her illegitimate child in the family well: “She kept the man’s name to herself throughout her labor and dying; she did not accuse him that he be punished with her” (11). The family did everything in their power to deny that she had ever existed. But in doing so, they effectively sustained her immortality. They changed their whole life-style just to ignore this unfaithful woman. She had, in her death, more power over her family than anyone else.
A trait of this book that is annoying like the buzz of a fly one cannot see is Kingston’s style in telling some of her stories. In the story “Shaman”, a not-entirely-truthful account of her mother’s medical education in Canton, China, Kingston adds in clearly fictional points when describing her mother’s feelings after facing a ghost one night: “I was afraid, and fear may have driven me out of my body and mind” (71). As a Chinese woman, there would be immense shame for the narrator’s mother if she were to admit while still in China that she had been afraid. This betrays the authenticity of the story and leaves the reader wondering what is real and what is not.
The setting of each story is different from the last, but there is a pattern. Within each chapter, a “talk-story” of her mother’s precedes a story of her own that relates in some way to that chapter’s talk-story. Within the book, the speaker shifts from the women of legends to Kingston herself as the narrator. The two major settings are 1900’s China and recent times in America. Kingston describes each setting as though she were there and every detail is accurate.
The Woman Warrior is not a single story of one main character and their working past a dilemma. Instead, the book focuses on the clash of cultures and the conflict of powers. For example, after Moon Orchid arrives in California, she demonstrates and inability to adapt to American standards: “And so Brave Orchid gave up. She was housing a mad sister who cursed the mornings for her children…when they needed blessing” (159). For Moon Orchid, America is a strange place, full of strange traditions and views that she simply does not agree with. One of which is the view that one must speak up to retain what is rightfully theirs, and that this is absolutely the correct path to take. Moon feels that this is too difficult and disruptive to others, and that the easiest and simplest route is to live in denial that her husband abandoned her for another woman. The clash of America’s views and Moon’s Chinese views is the significant factor in the deterioration of Moon’s mental health. In addition, Fa Mulan plays an important role in the clash of powers by training her body and mind to fight the various enemies she encounters. Her army never lost a battle, “Kuan Kung, the god of war and literature riding before me” (38). Fa Mulan believes so firmly that she will not loose a single battle that she actually doesn’t. The enemy seems powerless in comparison to Mulan. And when she finally beheads the baron who was responsible for her brother and husband’s mandatory involvement in the war, it is her final victory. Mulan returns home to her husband. This chapter of the book can be summed up in two words: Girl Power.
Have you ever thought of why anyone says or does the things they say or do? Depending on what culture you are a part of, the answer to this question can vary greatly. Both Chinese and American cultures have different ways of looking at behaviors. For example, the concept of strength in China is defined as conforming to the typical behaviors and thoughts. Weakness is showing any significant difference from the rest of the country. In the United States, however, difference and individuality are emphasized. It is believed in the States that true strength is required to express one’s individuality. The Chinese do not seem to agree. Each woman on which Kingston focuses seems to be strong enough to assert some sort of power against men, in whatever way they know how.
One of the main themes of The Woman Warrior is silence and talking and how the women use these to find strength. The “No Name Aunt uses her silence to provoke the other members in her village into a riot. Fa Mulan in “White Tigers” uses silence to observe nature in order to learn fighting techniques and to learn to control her body. Brave Orchid in “Shaman” uses silence to appear very smart when she studies medicine in Canton, China. Moon Orchid in “At the Western Palace” wants to stay silent regarding her husband despite her sister’s wishes in order to protect herself from rejection. The quiet girl in the narrator’s elementary class in “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe” uses silence one day in order to make the other girl cry. Although these fictional women assert their power through keeping quiet, Kingston herself uses the opposite to find her own strength: “They want me to participate in her punishment … after fifty years of neglect, I alone devote pages of paper to her, though not origamied into houses and clothes” (16). The first chapter of the book is a power in talking itself. Kingston breaks her family’s fifty-year-long silence and tells the world about her aunt. In China, the power was held within the silence. In America, the power is in talking.
Kingston uses a variety of voice tones throughout her book to accomplish a general tone of justice that can apply to Americans – particularly Chinese-Americans. Towards her “No Name Aunt,” it is an empathetic tone. Even though her aunt is left unacknowledged by the rest of her family, Kingston recognizes that it is not her fault for getting pregnant and she was unjustly punished for something she had little or no control over. To Fa Mulan, it is an empowering tone. Kingston wanted to show young women that they could do anything they put their mind to and they should never let stereotypes or society put limits on what they can or cannot do. Brave Orchid receives a respectful tone with a hint of fear and admiration. However powerful one is, one should also retain humility and respect for one’s elders. Moon Orchid is regarded with pity and sympathy, but also frustration. Those who are scared of what they need to do to the point of paranoia should be helped in the best way for them, which is usually professionally. Finally, Kingston describes herself in an unjust light, while the girl she tortures in the bathroom is viewed as innocent. It is never okay to hurt anyone, no matter what they’ve done. The girl never did anything to Kingston directly, and therefore cannot be held responsible for causing her frustration. Kingston portrays the concept of justice as a necessity of culture and as a vital piece of American life.
It seems that Kingston wishes for everyone to be him- or herself and to uphold their rights. Sometimes this is attainable through silence and sometimes through talking. Methods of asserting one’s power are purely circumstantial. Justice, however, is not. The definition of justice must be agreed upon in order to be upheld. Kingston uses this factor to show the internal conflict one may have between two cultures. Senses and definitions of justice can vary greatly. This recalls the earlier concept of “One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Treasure.” Anything in one place can, and will, be viewed differently in other places and cultures. The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston has the ability to draw any adult reader into its stories and concepts of silence, justice, and equality.