Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Girls from Ames by Jeffrey Zaslow

Exactly what makes a good book a good book? How is it defined? Do we base it on an inspiring writing style? Or something that leaves you with a message sunk deep into your bones? Or is a good book something that has stood up to the passing years, surviving fads and unpopularity? I suspect that critics and lay people have been debating this since the advent of the printing press, but I only bring it up because I am unsure of how to judge this particular work.

I’m referring to The Girls from Ames, a book that follows 11 girls from Iowa during a journey of growth and friendship. Jeffrey Zaslow, the author, has created an odd work. He’s a columnist and it shows in the book, which really can’t be defined as a novel or a collection of stories. It is really just a column that runs 320 pages. This is where my difficulty with the book comes in. Zaslow, though an entertaining and gracious person (he wrote a really nice message in my book, so I’m required to say that), seems out of place writing as a stand-in for a group of women. Unlike his book co-authored by Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture, Zaslow doesn’t disappear into the stories. In fact, it’s incredibly awkward to the reader when he repeatedly uses the word “cute” to describe the women as children or their corresponding actions. Cute is a word that the women may have used in their interviews, but it sounds awkward in prose, especially prose that comes from a man’s pen.

If I just based my judgment of this book on the writing, I would probably end my review here with some curt punctuation. Yet, I have trouble doing that. Zaslow’s book made me think back on my old childhood friendships, ones that formed in day care, high school, camp, and college. I never had a bevy of friends, but I always had one or two from each group that I would consider real “friend.” The rest were just acquaintances. Now, at 24, I find myself in NYC for almost a year and feel terribly alone. It’s my own fault—I neglect my friends terribly. Out of sight, out of mind. If I don’t see them everyday, I forget to make contact, find myself too lazy to return calls, and generally fall off the face of the planet. The Girls from Ames made me feel that loneliness and guilt more than ever. The internet has made friendships easier than ever, yet still I’m lost in a vacuum.

That’s why I can’t decide whether this is a good book or not. Do I keep my opinion totally style-based? Well, then it’s a piece of garbage. Or do I judge it based on its affect on me? That would make it a perfectly reasonable read and a good use of my time. Regardless of my final judgment, I’m going to use this as an impetus to get off my ass and start being a friend again.

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