I was different, but it wasn’t. As the light flickered over it in bands, I had the queasy sense of my own life, in comparison, as a patternless and transient burst of energy, a fizz of biological static just as random as the street lamps flashing past.
Thirteen-year-old Theo survives a terrorist bombing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which kills his mother, and takes from the museum a priceless painting.
I generally like long books, but this one seemed very long. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon, and by three-quarters of the way through, I was exhausted. Although I can’t point to anything specifically that is bloat, I couldn’t help but ask myself whether this book really needed to be this long, or if perhaps it was somewhat blown up by its self-importance.
All the things Donna Tartt does well (based on her very short body of work–three novels in total), she does well in The Goldfinch. She is terrific at conveying details that make people and places seem vivid and real. The scene where Theo leaves the suddenly transformed museum after the explosion was at the same time dreamlike and yet absolutely realistic, a breath-stopping piece of writing. Her knack for details bring her characters to life without making them mundane. And she has a peculiar gift for writing about that disconnected state of mind that occurs when you’re inebriated or high or traumatized. (I still recall a scene in her first novel, The Secret History, where the protagonist was so drunk, and his drunkenness described so precisely, that I felt drunk myself just from reading it.) In The Goldfinch, Theo relies on pills, moving through his own life in a detached, observant mode so that he’s like nothing but a head bobbing above everything he sees, and thus able to describe it all so precisely.
And yet. Perhaps it is the story itself that cannot support all of this rich detail. (Here is where I must descend into spoiler territory, so beware.)
Theo is haunted by the painting he has taken, The Goldfinch. He is terrified that he will be caught with it, that he will be imprisoned and fined and held up to censure for what he has done. For a boy, this is a reasonable fear, but I grew impatient with the adult Theo continuing to have it. Surely it might have occurred to him that the museum wanted the painting back no matter what, and that no one would consider a 13-year-old to be an opportunistic art thief. What annoyed me most about this is that Tartt gave herself a perfectly reasonable out. When Theo runs away from Las Vegas in the middle of the night, he thinks he is carrying the painting, but he never checks. Instead of being persecuted by his own fear, he might have discovered the painting was gone and become obsessed with what had happened to it instead. Who had it? Were they taking care of it? Would the painting persevere? That obsession would give him more than enough incentive as an adult to accompany his friend Boris in a risky chase after it, rather than be bullied into going. But as it stands, Theo’s fear and his motivations seem thin, and he never gets the chance to take action in his own life, to rescue himself. Instead, that rescue has to come from outside. It’s just not satisfying, especially after journeying thorough all those pages to get there.
And then there is the little detail of the terrorist bombing itself, which after it happens, is never mentioned again, not in the sense of an impactful, historic event. How had the museum changed afterward? Wouldn’t Theo wonder who had did it and why? Wouldn’t he encounter reminders, such as the inevitable annual memorial? Tartt provides all this detail, but can’t satisfy the reader on these points–that feels like a cheat.
There are so many things to like about this book, and so many reasons I wanted to love it. But I have to wonder if it asks too much of us readers, to give it so many hours of our precious reading time. In the end, when Tartt has quite a lot she wants to say about the importance of art and uses Theo to say it, I’m not there with her. I want to feel the same exhilaration I felt after reading The Secret History, but I just can’t.
Filed under: Arts--Music--Dance, New & Notable | Leave a Comment
Tags: Artists, Bildungsromans, Donna Tartt, Literary fiction, Loss (psychology), New York, Self-realization, Suspense fiction, The Goldfinch, Young men
Stephen King is my favorite writer. If you’d like to tackle his huge oeuvre, here are a couple of ways to approach him, based on loose connections between the works. If you like Stephen King as much as I do, you might want to follow my All Stephen King board on Pinterest.
Dark Tower-Related Books
This is a list of all the books by Stephen King that tie in somehow to his Dark Tower universe, as well as the Dark Tower books themselves. Some of these books have characters that will later reappear in the Dark Tower series; others introduce important concepts or themes explored in the series. This list will appeal more to fans of dark fantasy and it contains many of King’s longer, more epic novels (some might call them “doorstoppers”). The books are listed in chronological order by earliest date of publication. The title links to the review, if there is one. Note that I reviewed the entire Dark Tower series in one post.
- ‘Salem’s Lot
- The Stand
- The Talisman (with Peter Straub)
- The Mist (contained in Skeleton Crew)
- The Eyes of the Dragon
- The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger (note that there is also a revised and expanded version)
- The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three
- The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands
- Rose Madder
- Desperation and The Regulators (parallel novels)
- The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass
- Hearts in Atlantis
- From a Buick 8
- Black House (with Peter Straub)
- The Little Sisters of Eluria (contained in Everything’s Eventual)
- The Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla
- The Dark Tower VI: Song of Susannah
- The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower
- The Wind Through the Keyhole
- The Dark Tower comic book series by Robin Furth
- The Road to the Dark Tower by Bev Vincent
Derry and Castle Rock Books
The books on these list all tie in to Stephen King’s most famous fictional towns: Derry and Castle Rock, Maine. Some are set in the town itself; others have the town as a secondary setting or feature characters from the town. This is a good list if you prefer more traditional horror. King is well-known for his everyday, down-to-earth characters who suddenly come across an inexplicable horror that disrupt their ordinary lives, and these books showcase that aspect of his work. They are listed in order of publication. Click the link for the full review (unlinked books have not been reviewed).
Castle Rock Books
- The Dead Zone
- Different Seasons
- Skeleton Crew
- The Dark Half
- Four Past Midnight
- Needful Things
- Nightmares and Dreamscapes
- Gerald’s Game
Filed under: Reading Lists | Leave a Comment
Tags: Stephen King
A man may be accused of cowardice for fleeing away from all manner of physical dangers but when things supernatural, insubstantial and inexplicable threaten not only his safety and well-being but his sanity, his innermost soul, then retreat is not a sign of weakness but the most prudent course.
A young lawyer visits a creepy, isolated house to dispose of a deceased client’s papers and finds it haunted by a mysterious woman in black.
This ghost story is written in a classic Gothic style, reminiscent of the popular ghost stories of the Victorian era. This makes it a bit difficult to place in time, since the characters drive both cars and pony carts, but I think it is meant to be out of time, to evoke a sense of place that never changes. Hill is quite good at atmosphere, and though the story starts out slow (paying attention to those Victorian conventions again), the atmosphere builds and builds. Her Eel Marsh House is wonderfully creepy, and the couple of nights the narrator spends there alone are quite deliciously spooky.
I won’t say that there’s much going on under the surface of this short novel. It seems like a straightforward ghost tale, meant to be enjoyed on a cold winter’s night in front of the fire. It probably wouldn’t hold up to rereading after rereading, like The Haunting of Hill House, for instance. I found the ending suitably horrifying, but also a little blunt.
Filed under: Dark & Weird, Monsters--Ghosts--Supernatural | Leave a Comment
Tags: England, Ghost stories, Haunted houses, Lawyers, Legal stories, Susan Hill, Suspense fiction, Woman in Black
After the death of their mother, the three Bigtree children cope with their grief and the impending foreclosure of their alligator theme park, located on an island in a Florida swamp.
This book did not quite align with my expectations. I don’t know what I was expecting, exactly, but I had heard a lot of buzz about this novel, and I had the impression that it had some fantastic elements. No, it is a straightforward coming-of-age novel, with a rather disturbing extended kidnapping toward the end–disturbing for me because it took 13-year-old Ava so long to realize that she was actually being kidnapped.
Some criticisms. The book alternates point of view between first-person Ava and the third-person perspective of her older brother Kiwi, who leaves his sisters and goes to the mainland to try to earn some money to save their family’s theme park, Swamplandia! I found the style switches to be rather jarring, and I was overall more interested in Ava’s story than in Kiwi’s. Especially toward the end, switching to his point of view slows down the whole book in a very annoying way. Also, I found the writing style somewhat confusing, as I wasn’t sure at times exactly what was being described and therefore what was happening. Sometimes I enjoy this kind of ambiguity, if it is skillfully done, but here, it mostly irritated me.
This book had a lot of potential, and I certainly stuck with it to the end, but overall it was disappointing.
Filed under: Family--Home--Relationships, New & Notable | 3 Comments
Tags: Alligators, Amusement parks, Death, Everglades, Florida, Girls, Karen Russell, Motherless families, Mothers--death, Quests (expeditions), Swamplandia!, Ten Thousand Islands
But a world without disasters and violence–be it the violence of nature or that of muscle and blood–would be the truly unbearable thing.
Two couples are having dinner at an upscale restaurant, but under the surface, family secrets are concealed and dark emotions abound.
This novel, translated from the Dutch, reminded me very strongly of a favorite novel of mine, The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester (which I think was a better book). Both have unreliable narrators and gradually turn very dark as the reader is allowed further into the recesses of the narrator’s twisted mind. And both have a recurring theme of food.
In The Dinner, the story takes place during one dinner at a fine-dining restaurant, organized around each course of the meal. Paul, the narrator, skewers this restaurant in his thoughts, savaging it for its pretentiousness and trendiness in a way that perfectly evokes the faux nature of the modern worship of the restaurant. The description of the men’s room was particularly witty, but his observations of everything from the tiny portions to the waitress’s hairstyles are spot on.
Pause to say that I am going to try not to allow very many spoilers into this review, but with reading this book, the experience may be more enjoyable if you know less about the characters. So you may want to stop here if you have not yet read the novel.
Early on in the novel, Paul makes a reference to two movies: Straw Dogs and Deliverance. Not only was this a red flag to signal the dark subject matter that would enter unexpectedly into this ordinary urban setting, but it was also the key to unlocking Paul’s character. Paul is not a likable protagonist, as many reviewers have observed. We are not meant to like him, or indeed to feel much sympathy for anyone in this book. But to Paul himself, he is a hero in his own story. Like Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs and Burt Reynolds in Deliverance, Paul sees everything he does as necessary action he has to take to protect his family and himself from a hostile world. His character is supposed to make it uncomfortable, because colored another way, he could easily be portrayed as a family man, doing what needs to be done. Perhaps until we get to the final twist, anyway.
There were some plot points I found not quite believable, and because of the subject matter and the behavior of the characters, The Dinner on the whole is not a comfortable read. But I enjoyed the read in an intellectual way, for how the nature of the characters gradually revealed itself and for the descent into darkness it took me on.
Filed under: Family--Home--Relationships, New & Notable | Leave a Comment
Tags: Amsterdam, Dutch fiction, Families, Herman Koch, Netherlands, The Dinner, Translations into English
I’ve finally finished my project of the past few months to post a large portion of my past book reviews on this blog, copying them over from their original home on LibraryThing. Now the book reviews on this blog go back to 2001, and some are from before that. These reviews don’t represent all of the books I’ve read over the past 13+ years, just the best ones, as well as the most thought-provoking or anger-provoking ones. You can find the reviews via the archive or tags over on the right sidebar.
If you follow my blog and your feed was inundated with these past postings, thanks for bearing with me. The onslaught should stop now, and all future posts will be reviews of new reads.
Next project: I’m going to put together some recommended reading lists, organized by theme or subject, mining the review archives. Should be fun.
Filed under: Miscellany | Leave a Comment