Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Goldfinch

I got on the list at the library for the audio version of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch 7 months ago, and finally got to have a turn at it in Dec/Jan.  It was wonderful--all 26 disks of it.  I'm so glad that I went for the audio version as I think the reader, David Pittu, really added so much to the story with his voices for the various characters, particularly Boris.  I ended up getting a paper copy to finish the book because I couldn't finish it by the due date (6 weeks doing errands in the car couldn't quite get me to the end of the book), and I missed Pittu's accents and inflections and overall narration in the closing pages of the book.

Much as I liked the book, and it is a long, sweeping story, I admit that I was ready for the part in Las Vegas to be over much sooner than the actual story called for, but then I love reading stories set in NYC, where the bulk of the story took place.

In a nutshell, The Goldfinch is the story of Theo Decker, who we meet as a 13 year old boy who loses his mother in a horrific terrorist attack, and spends the next 10 years of his life essentially dealing with the post-traumatic stress that just about consumes him.  I think Tartt did a terrific job of getting inside the head of a 13 year old, which is a jumble of half-learned truths and a whole lot of misconceptions.

At first, I was thinking that Tartt was brave to choose 1st person for her narrative--after all she's a middle-aged woman--but then I remembered that her other major work, The Secret History, was also a 1st person story with a college-aged man being the protagonist.  Now, it seems that Tartt has a knack for getting in the head of criminally-oriented, self-effacing young men.

I like stories the springboard off of art--I'm a big fan of The Girl With the Pearl Earring and The Lady and the Unicorn, for example--but this one is different.  Rather than giving the reader a fictionalized backstory of a painting, Tartt uses a 1654 painting of a goldfinch by Carel Fabritius as the lynchpin in Theo's personal story.  The painting triggers catastrophe in Theo's life and his response to it and relationship to it shape almost every action and reaction that he has in his life.

As with The Secret History, I was profoundly skeptical that any adolescent could consume the amount of drugs and alcohol that Theo and his Russian friend, Boris, do during their time in Las Vegas, but that could be tempered by my middle-aged fuddy-duddy nature shining through.

I did like the character of Boris quite a bit--I have to say, he is the most engaging criminal adolescent since I met the Artful Dodger in Dickens' Oliver Twist when I was in my teens.

I found myself thinking about all the various parents and surrogate parents and came to view The Goldfinch as a study in parenting to some degree.  There's Theo's mother, of course--why she didn't spell out guardianship for Theo in her will, given the powderkeg that was Theo's father completely baffled me--apart from that glaring omission she was a good parent.

Theo's father and Xandra were complete enablers and leading contenders for "worst parents in the world," except that Boris's father could probably edge them out.  The Barbours are weird parents, whose offspring reflect their misaligned approach to parenting...from bully/drifter Platt, to poor Andy, to ice-princess Kitzy, to TedKennedyesque Toddy.

Hobie is wonderful, nuturing parent, although perhaps a tad too trusting and naive.  I sincerely hope that Bill Nighy gets the role in the upcoming movie version as he is who I pictured in the role from the minute I met Hobie in the book.

Bill Nighy as Hobie in my dream cast for the movie.
Welty, must get the prize for best parent in the book, to both Theo and the wonderfully drawn Pippa, my absolutely favorite character in the book.  I found it perfect that she and Boris, the angel and devil characters who sit on Theo's shoulder and try to guide him, instinctively liked each other.  Given my view of Boris and Pippa as Janus-type guardian angels, you can argue that they play foster parent roles in Theo's life as well.

I loved the writing of The Goldfinch--Tartt created a rich, varied, multi-textured, layered world that was entirely believable but also an alternate universe to the one I inhabit.  I found Theo's story fascinating and the pacing perfect--focusing on minutes and days for chapters and then leaping forward by years to focus again minutely.

The story (art and the art underworld), the characters, the writing, the details were all spot on.  Great book, worth the time to read or listen to it.  Much, much better than The Secret History.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy

I really wanted to love this book--it has all the right elements--it's a history book about the Civil War ( a lifetime interest of mine), it's about women breaking through traditional gender roles and doing interesting things, and it was dissed in a book review in the Washington Post that made me want to rally to author Karen Abbott's side.  I snatched it up as soon as my local library got a copy because I knew it would have a long waiting list.

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, by Karen Abbott, is about four women who were actively engaged as military spies during the Civil War.  Belle Boyd and Rose O'Neal Greenhow were Southerners who spied on behalf of the South, and Elizabeth Van Lew and Emma Edmonds were Northern spies.  Van Lew was a Southerner who was a Unionist, living in Richmond, and Edmonds disguised herself as a male (renaming herself Frank Thompson) and served in the Army of the Potomac until she deserted when she thought her true identity was about to be discovered.

I finished it last night and sad to say, I pretty much agree with Jonathan Yardley, the author of the WP post linked to above who complained about Abbott's flights of fancy:
If there were only one of two such passages the reader could grant Abbott poetic license and let the matter pass, but there are so many of them that the line between fact and invention is exceedingly difficult to discern.
Abbott provides an extensive index and dozens of pages of notes at the end of the book.  In fact, she actually responded to Yardley, saying:
...he overlooked the breadth of my citations as a whole, a combined 60 pages of endnotes and bibliography that draw from more than 200 sources, and that far exceed the guidelines set forth for narrative nonfiction by the Chicago Manual of Style.
The problem is that despite 60 pages of endnotes and 200 sources, I didn't believe a lot of what Abbott wrote.  Partly because scenes that she fictionalized were based on the memoirs of the women themselves--Belle Boyd in particular retold her stories over the years, embellishing and rewriting history as she struggled with her mental illness.  It interesting to think about, but sometimes one's own story does not make for a credible source.

Once incredulity enters into a reader's mind, it seems that the author can do nothing right.  In the end, I found the book quite shallow.  It didn't reflect a strong premise and didn't argue a point.  I learned some stuff about the four women, but it didn't change how I think about the war or broaden my understanding of the issues that divided the U.S. 150 years ago.

I did end up giving the book 3 stars on Goodreads because it actually was fun to read (all that breathless, sensational prose coupled with cliffhanger endings to chapters is fun) and it piqued my interest in finding out more about these four women, particularly Elizabeth Van Lew, who was by far my favorite of the foursome.

I really hope Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy doesn't mark a trend in historical books where research and sticking to the facts gives way to romanticizing and embellishment. If I had wanted to read a novel about these women, I would have done so.  As it is, I think Abbott would have done better to have let Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy be the novel she so clearly wanted to write.  It would have been a pretty good novel, but it wasn't a very good book of history.


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

First Chapter/First Paragraph: The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee was one of my Christmas gifts this year.  I'm eager to get started on it, especially after reading the opening for today's First Chapter First Paragraph - Tuesday Intros, hosted by Bibliophile by the Sea.  I encourage to stop by to see what other bloggers are diving into this week.

Here's the First Paragraph of The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop:

When I walk into a bookstore, any bookstore, first thing in the morning, I'm flooded with a sense of hushed excitement.  I shouldn't feel this way.  I've spent most of my adult life working in bookstores, either as a bookseller or a publisher's sales rep, and even though I no longer work in the business, as an incurable reader I find myself in a bookstore at least five times a week.  Shouldn't I be blasé about it all by now?  In the quiet of such a morning, however, the store's displays stacked squarely and its shelves tidy and promising, I know that this is no mere shop.  When a bookstore opens its doors, the rest of the world enters, too, the day's weather and the day's news, the streams of customers, and of course the boxes of books and the many other worlds they contain--books of facts and truths, books newly written and those first read centuries before, books of great relevance and books of absolute banality.  Standing in the middle of this confluence, I can't help but feel the possibility of the universe unfolding a little, once upon a time.

I think this book and I are going to get along just fine.  How about you?

Sunday, January 18, 2015

On the Virtual Front - January Delivers!

There's a surfeit of good TV right now, and between that and going to see movies, I feel like I haven't been reading much lately...though that isn't strictly true.

Saturday night sees the return of The Musketeers, sadly without Cardinal Richelieu but still lots of wonderful swashbuckling and not too many horrible anachronisms.  I have noticed how they never have to stop and reload those pistols, though, which are also are surprisingly accurate for the timeframe.  I loved how the opening totally reminded my of my childhood favorite, Bonanza--so much so that I started humming the Bonanza theme song.

I also caught episode three of The Great British Bake Off.  None of the U.S. cooking competitions feature baking (too much time watching dough rise, I suppose), so this is particularly fun.

Sunday nights we record Madame Secretary, The Good Wife, and Downton Abbey to watch throughout the week.  We also record Worst Cooks in America on Sundays this month,but this season is so lame it's in danger of dropping off my list of must-watch.  I love seeing Tim Daly in Madame Secretary--I loved him in Wings and overall I like the plot lines.  The writing isn't as sharp as West Wing, but still pretty good.  The Good Wife is always good--Eli Gold remains my favorite character, and I was horrified to see David Lee joining the firm--yuck!  Downton Abbey is wonderful if only to serve as a foundation for the marvelously snarky morning-after synopses that make Monday so much fun.

When I run out of recorded shows, I'm working my way through White Collar, which is so much fun.  New York is as much the star of the show as Matt Bomer is, and of course, Mozzie is my absolutely favorite character.  

On the movie front, I saw The Imitation Game yesterday, and thought it tremendously good.  On New Years Eve, I saw Wild, which I loved.  Hoping to see Selma or Birdman tomorrow, since I have the day off due to Martin Luther King day.  And, I'm still looking forward to seeing Into the Woods soon.

On the horizon...Call the Midwife resumes in the U.S., in February, and then Outlander in April, followed by the release of a new Far From the Madding Crowd (starring Cary Mulligan) in May.

How will I ever keep up with my reading goals for 2015?

Monday, January 12, 2015

2015 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

I was so excited to find out that the 2015 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge is on and now hosted by Amy at Passages to the Past.

I love historical fiction--easily my favorite genre and one that I have been reading all my life.  In fact, for the longest time I thought all novels were historical fiction.  I don't think I read a contemporary novel until I was in Junior High and was swept up in the Love Story craze.

Anyway, the rules are delightfully simple. The challenge runs from January 1 to December 31 and there are six different levels to choose from:
20th century Reader – 2 books
Victorian Reader – 5 books
Renaissance Reader – 10 books
Medieval – 15 books
Ancient History – 25 books
Prehistoric – 50+ books
In both 2014 and 2013, I made it to the Medieval level, and that's where I'm aiming again.  Given my TBR shelf, it should be a piece of cake...and a yummy one at that!

Friday, January 09, 2015

Unaccustomed Earth

My sister lent me her copy of Unaccustomed Earth, a set of short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri, and urged me to read it as she said the writing was wonderful.  Since I always do as told by my older siblings, I read it and Frances was right, I loved it.

I've been wanting to read more diversely and this was a good way to dip my toe into the water.  The stories are generally about the Indian immigrant experience, set in places like New England and the Pacific Northwest with trips to India, Thailand, and London.  They are stories of families coming apart and coming together, daughters trying to be dutiful but trying to live their own lives, sons who fail to live up to expectations, individuals trying to become a couple despite cultural barriers, generations striving to understand each other.

The writing is lovely--poignant, soft, even mellow, but with an undertow that catches you off-guard and makes you remember the story for days.  The way short stories are supposed to work!

I'll definitely be looking for other books by Lahiri as I can envision her becoming a new favorite author.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Jane Austen's First Love

I had the good fortune to interview Syrie James as part of the blog tour for her latest novel, Jane Austen's First Love, back in November, but I didn't actually review the book then.  Time to remedy that!

Jane Austen's First Love is aptly titled--James has created a fictional story about how 15-year old Jane Austen, a lively, big-hearted, and clever young lady, falls in love with the equally lively and dashing Edward Taylor.  Edward lives near the Bridges family in Kent that Jane's brother Edward is about to marry into.  As luck would have it, Jane's parents allow her, her sister Cassandra, and younger brother Charles to spend several marvelous weeks in the summer at the Bridges's palatial home--essentially giving them free reign to dance, romp, picnic, and flirt their time away as part of the pre-nuptial festivities.

With shades of Mansfield Park hovering over the story, Jane spearheads a plan for all the young folk gathered to do a production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer's Night Dream.  With shades of Emma Woodhouse coloring Jane's personality, Jane's objective is to play matchmaker, including making a match for herself...with the marvelous Edward.

As you might imagine, Jane's well-laid plans go awry and things don't work out as she imagined.  What I liked about the story and James's portrait of a very young Jane Austen is that she acted her age--she was young and full of life and not pedantic--but her heart and sense of ethics were solid.  She learned from her mistakes, was humbled, and grew in self-awareness and compassion.  I love to think of the author I've loved for so long as developing from this sweet, intelligent girl.

Kudos to Syrie James for creating a lovable, believable heroine in Jane Austen as a teenager.  Jane Austen's First Love is a delightful antidote to the January doldrums and I can recommend it highly.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Mailbox Monday

It's been awhile since I did a Mailbox Monday, but with a good selection of Christmas books that I received, it seems a natural for an early January post.  Stop on by Mailbox Monday to see what other reading bloggers are excited about this week.

I've already blogged about Well-Read Women, water color portraits of literature's leading ladies by artist Samantha Hahn.  I know many of my internet and blogger friends will love this book too.

In the book about books category, I also received By the Book, Writers on Literature and the Literary Life from the The New York Times Book Review.

Also in this category is Lewis Buzbee's The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, which I received from Bev of My Reader's Block, who was my Bookish Secret Santa this year.

In fiction, I received and am excited to read Ann Patchett's This is the Story of a Happy Marriage.  But first, I have to read her State of Wonder, which is the first book I'm reading on my TBR Pile Challenge this year.

My son gave me First Impressions, the Austenesque novel by Charlie Lovett, which I cannot wait to read.  Seems like a fun, fresh approach to Austenmania.

And finally, the piece de resistance, is a hardbound, with cover book of Audubon's early drawings of birds.  This was a gift from my husband--we started birding just over a year ago, and it is a treasured addition in the gorgeous book category.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Well-Read Women - portraits of fiction's most beloved heroines

Anna Karenina, Daisy Buchanan, Jane Eyre: the greatest female characters inflame our passions and excite our imaginations.  Our favorite characters are universal archetypes and uniquely flawed individuals all at once.  Every so often, an author creates this kind of masterpiece, a female figure of such dazzling originality and truth that she will resonate with readers for all time.  We sympathize with her, we admire her, we hate her, we want to be her. Ultimately, every reader brings his or her own imagination to the task of envisioning these legendary characters.
 From Well-Read Women, by Samantha Hahn
I received several books for Christmas this year (yeah!), but the one that I've now read three times is from my dear daughter.  It is Well-Read Women, by Samantha Hahn, and it is a collection of gorgeous water color portraits of memorable fiction women along with quotes from the books they feature in.

Here are a few of my favorites...

Holly Golightly

Daisy Buchanan


It is a wonderful book and I enjoy leafing through it, looking into the eyes of the women who have peopled my literary world for most of my life. Most of them are consistent with my image of them--although Jo March is much sharper than I imagined, and Dorothea Brooke is more diffuse.  And...I do have a couple of out-and-out quibbles.

The first is the Elizabeth Bennet quote: "A lady's imagination is very rapid; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony, in a moment."  We all know that Mr. Darcy said this to Miss Caroline Bingley so I'm not sure why it was chosen as Elizabeth's signature quote for the book.

Hahn in the introduction mentions Becky Sharp's "Edwardian dress."  Given that Vanity Fair was published in 1847 and is a classic Victorian novel although set in the Napoleonic (Regency) timeframe, and the Edwardian period was 1901-1910, I have to wonder just how closely Hahn got to know Becky Sharp before producing this portrait of her.

Becky Sharp
I don't mean to sound like a curmudgeon, but any editor worth their salt should've caught that one!

So, like any good heroine, this book has a couple of flaws, but not enough to prevent me from loving it.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Mount TBR Challenge

I hear about this challenge every year and never do it...until now.  It's really tailor-made for me as I really do read mostly from my stacks, reserving my library visits for audio books or group-read or book club selections.

Bev at My Readers Block is hosting the 2015 Mount TBR Challenge--and here is the page if you want join in the fun and diminish your you can get more books for next year!

Here's the nutshell version of the rules:

Challenge Levels:

Pike's Peak: Read 12 books from your TBR pile/s
Mount Blanc: Read 24 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Vancouver: Read 36 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Ararat: Read 48 books from your TBR piles/s
Mt. Kilimanjaro: Read 60 books from your TBR pile/s
El Toro: Read 75 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Everest: Read 100 books from your TBR pile/s
Mount Olympus (Mars): Read 150+ books from your TBR pile/s

And the rules:
*Once you choose your challenge level, you are locked in for at least that many books. If you find that you're on a mountain-climbing roll and want to tackle a taller mountain, then you are certainly welcome to upgrade.  All books counted for lower mountains may carry over towards the new peak.

As a newbie and Colorado Springs native, I'm going to set my sights on Pikes Peak (btw, I just learned that the U.S. Board of Geographic Names decided a long time ago to not use apostrophes in place names as geographic features like mountains and rivers, etc belong to all the people).

Since my TBR Pile Challenge has 12 books required, I'm pretty much low-balling this one.  But, who needs more pressure right now anyway?

Pikes Peak, photo by Stewart M. Green