Friday, March 1, 2013

Review: Being Henry David

Being Henry DavidAuthor: Cal Armistead
Release date: March 1st 2013
Publisher: A. Whitman Teen
Hardcover, 270 pages
Source: Publisher for review
Buy: The Book Depository

I will now tell you bad, bad things about this book. If you’re uncomfortable with me telling you such things, you’d best look away ‘cause it’s about to start. Consider yourselves warned.

Being Henry David is a very ambitious project. I believe it was supposed to be a deep, cathartic experience, a heart-wrenching story about a young man unable to face the consequences of his actions. At least I think that’s what Cal Armistead set out to write. What she actually wrote, in my humble opinion, is an aimless novel with no real emotion or depth.

I always try to balance things out in my negative reviews and I don’t particularly enjoy being this harsh, especially when writing about a debut work, but after careful consideration, I’ve decided it’s best to be painfully honest and let you come to your own conclusions.

A boy wakes up at the New York Penn Station with no memories and no possessions whatsoever. The only thing he has on him is a book, Walden by Henry David Thoreau, and he decides it’s some kind of a clue. He names himself Henry David, Hank, and starts hanging out with two street kids, Jack and Nessa. After an incident that could put them all in jail, Hank leaves New York to go to Concord, Massachusetts where he wants to explore Walden Pond and Thoreau’s way of life.

I consider telling the cops that I’m lost, and can’t remember who I am. Maybe they can help me. But there’s that thing in my chest like a brick wall that says this would be a terrible idea. Some fuzzy instinct tells me it’s not safe to go to the police. Fuzzy instinct isn’t much to go on, but it’s all I have. I decide to trust it.

Apparently, it has become very popular to write novels that lean heavily on another novel or author, usually a classic. (How very postmodern of you, Ms. Armistead!) In this case, Henry David Thoreau was on every page, both through his work and his life. Hank dreamed about him, hallucinated him, followed his movements, and thanks to his photographic memory, he quoted him at every turn. There were, at times, more H.D. Thoreau quotes than actual text and they swallowed this story whole and suffocated it in the process.

The romance, slight as it was, felt almost like an afterthought, added somewhere along the line because some editor said so. I could be wrong, of course, but I don’t think it was there from the start. That entire subplot was this book’s weakest link, unnecessary, unconvincing and maybe even a bit silly. I’ve seen this so many times, almost every time a female author writes from a male perspective about a female love interest. It just doesn’t click.

Being Henry David offers no closure, no real resolution. Quite a few secondary characters are left right in the middle of a very dire situation, without so much as a hint about their fate. Instead of a proper ending, a strange, dream-like scene concludes the book, all wrapped up in far too many Thoreau quotes, of course. It’s a pity, really, because Cal Armistead is not an untalented author. She has a wonderful understanding of her characters, but she mostly just lets them wander around aimlessly.

Better luck next time, I guess. For all of us.


  1. It's hard to write bad reviews on debut authors. I admire your honesty :D Thanks for the review.


  2. Oh no, I requested this based on the cover alone but am yet to read it. I hadn't thought much about female authors writing from a male pov about a female love interest and now I am trying to think of examples where it has or hasn't worked.

    Good, honest review, Maja

  3. Gosh, Thoreau on every page? Isn't there a reason teens hate Thoreau's writing and stay away from it? I remember having to read so many of his works last year and vowing to never read a word of his again. He's just too wordy for his own good. Anyway, it's a shame this was such a disappointment, Maja, but with characters and plot lines being just after thoughts, it's amazing you stuck with this through the end. I hope your next read is far better, dear!(:

  4. I'm going to have to say this book probably isn't for me. I like closure and, even though I like Thoreau, I don't think I want it on every page.

  5. I'm with Mary on this one, I don't think this book would work for me either Maja! I need my books to have a purpose, I don't do well with aimless wandering or open endings. I have to have some sort of resolution, even if that resolution is setup for the next book. I'm not good with endings that want me to make of them what I will, JUST TELL ME WHAT IT'S ALL SUPPOSED TO MEAN!!! :)

  6. hahaha.. I saw this and was initially intrigued but then I remembered my attempts to read Walden and I had an involuntary shiver and promptly wrote this one off as 'not gonna be for me'. Sometimes Sometimes I don't mind the perfectly tied up ending, the ones where you can contemplate many ways that the ending could have been interpreted, but that's rare. Mostly I like a clear, distinctive ending where I'm not left in doubt wondering what the hell just happened. Fantastic review Maja! I'm glad I chose to stay away from this one. :)

  7. Thanks for the review.

    i will not read it . sadly dough

    gr8 review

  8. Oh no, definitely not reading this one now! It grates on my nerves when an author relies too heavily on quotes and themes from a well known work or author in their story. It sounds like it's so pervasive in this book I would end up hating Thoreau by the end, which I'm sure is the opposite reaction the author hopes for. The rare instance where something like this worked for me was in A.S. King's Ask the Passengers when the MC hallucinates Socrates, and she works the Cave allegory into the story so well, I actually was curious to do some infovoring on Socrates/Plato later. But most of the time this is a train wreck of an idea.

    And the unresolved ending and tacked on romance (why do editors make authors do this? WHY?) are definite turnoffs. It sounds like this author has talent, so hopefully her next book will be a better read for you. Thank you for your honesty and the thoughtful review. I know it's very hard to write these kinds of reviews, but you did a beautiful job!

  9. A very respectful, and not harsh at all, review! I like that you analysed it fairly, weighing both positives and negatives, crafting a helpful review for readers to go by :) Great job!

  10. For some reason, I never felt like requesting this book. And I'm glad that I didn't. I'm sorry this didn't work out for you but you made it so clear in your review why it didn't. Even though this was a negative review, your tone was polite, so it actually seemed like a positive one.
    It's really annoying when a book doesn't offer any kind of resolution. I'm not a huge fan of leave it to the reader's imagination thing. I want an ending in my book. I don't care if it's not a happy one, but I need an ending, so this book definitely wouldn't work for me. And I completely agree about females writing male POVs and then trying to insert a romance. It often doesn't work very well.
    Anyways, this was a great honest review, Maja!

  11. This one didn't stick out to me regardless, but that's a bummer it wasn't a "win" in any way for you. I like quotes in books but not when it's overkill and I like when they are a mix of things and not just one author (especially if I have not read anything by said author--like Henry David Thoreau). I will say the way he chooses his name is pretty cool. :)

  12. I'll definitely be avoiding this one Maja. I'm so sorry to hear you didn't enjoy this one. It sounds like it has lots of problems with dependency on other authors, flat romance.

    Hopefully your next book will be better. Very honest review, Maja that wasn't too harsh! :)

  13. Aw too bad. I need some sort of conclusion and that would bother me to not have one. Must have something to tie it together. Also sad about the romance. Still sounded like an interesting premise.

  14. Kind of sounds a bit like Teeth. I am glad you told me some very bad things about this one. I don't think I would have patience for this as I think the author was trying to hard and that just doesn't work for me. If I want Thoreau I will read his work not some author trying to copy him.

  15. The book idea sounds really unique although I don't know if I'd like to read a story that contains a lot of quotes from Henry David Thoreau. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Maja!

  16. Now that kind of romance sounds far too familiar. In those situations, I'd rather it be left out entirely. Plus the thought of a book inundated with Thoreau quotes is only confirming that I won't enjoy this in the slightest. It's a shame, as it sounds like the author has potential, at least. Perhaps her future projects will turn out better... Lovely review, Maja!

  17. Oh no! I'm sorry that you didn't like it, girly. :( I guess I just got a lucky shot on this one, because I enjoyed it, but I completely know what you mean about the romance-- I didn't really see it as romance at all! But I really liked the surreal bits with Henry David Thoreau, it was just weird enough to keep me happy. But I can understand your complaints. Fabulous review, Maja! (:

    Megan@The Book Babe

  18. Yes to this review, Maja! You hit it right on the head, in my opinion. "What she actually wrote, in my humble opinion, is an aimless novel with no real emotion or depth." <--- That's basically it. I do find it interesting how many YA novels are out there that do this—borrow or incorporate another book into the story. I haven't read any of Hannah Moscowitz's books, but I know from reading your reviews that she does it in a big way, as do countless other authors, though maybe not on so large a scale as Armistead does here. Something to think about for sure.

  19. Oh boo this sounded so good! I didn't know it was sort of based on another classic though (I've also noticed this) but me not having read many classics I don't usually see anything but a weird reference I'm supposed to get and don't--not something I particularly enjoy you could say haha. Sounds like a pretty failed potentially good read this, if it had any... well point, I guess >.<

  20. Ah, this is the first negative review I've seen of this one. Now I'm worried. I usually take the road less traveled when it comes to opinions on books so maybe I should pass on this one.

  21. Ugh. An unresolved story is a pointless read for me. So, I think I'll pass, Maja.

    Thanks for the honesty. :)

  22. Oh boy, this would drive me absolutely crazy. You did a great job though. My negative reviews are usually ranty. lol.

  23. And pass :) I wouldn't have picked this one based on the cover anyways, but the synopsis of this just sounds so boring. I don't know how you managed to finish this one!

  24. The novel is an easy, compelling read. It's a vehicle with a great deal packed into it, but it never sags under the weight. This deserves to be widely read.

    Informative URL for Belden Products

  25. Great Article. Thank you for sharing! Really an awesome post for every one.

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