To paraphrase one of my friends who also read this Pulitzer Prize-winning tome, I loved it until I didn’t.
It’s clear that Dickens inspired Tartt – wheTo paraphrase one of my friends who also read this Pulitzer Prize-winning tome, I loved it until I didn’t.
It’s clear that Dickens inspired Tartt – where a disadvantaged youth like Oliver Twist or Nicholas Nickleby starts out being tossed by fate into terrible situations. In this case, a boy and his mother are at a NYC museum that becomes the target of a bomb attack. In the confusion, the boy steals his mother’s favorite painting from the museum, a 1654 goldfinch of the title. Then the book follows this shocked, scarred and imperfect boy for several years. He moves from precarious living situation to worse trying to protect and hide the priceless art. The crime and the unethical and ignorant people around him affect him.
Tartt has a wonderful sense of writing, and she creates some lovely characters. She also creates some not-so-interesting characters who take over the book and ruin everything. Tartt forgets that all characters either need to be empathy inducing or intriguing. By the end, most of the main players are neither. Her book transforms from a modern Dickens, to a badly written Brett Easton Ellis – with drugs, amoral behavior, theft, etc. Personalities become more and more shallow; the book turns thuggish and brutal. The ending reveals itself much to early and then takes 771 pages to wrap up. (This is along with a heft dozen pages toward the end on the painting itself, completely unnecessary at that point of the story; the history and supposition on artist intent should’ve been peppered throughout.)
But what can I say? She won the Pulitzer, if only for the shear magnitude of someone keeping this spinning for 771 pages. Maybe on the whole, my opinion doesn’t matter. I just know I felt angry and let down as the last third of the story grinded on and on. I slowly disliked people even more; even the ones I had started out loving became less attractive.
I understand that Tartt can write. I’ll probably pick up the next thing she writes, but I will also put it down the minute I sense it’s not interesting me. Instead, because it was lauded, with The Goldfinch, I stuck it out from page 443 to 771…as I hated it more…and as I grew less and less enamored…not a great way to end my year of reading…...more
I suppose I should write a few words, because I’m typically such a Waugh fan. This book, though, has almost none of his usual wit evident in works likI suppose I should write a few words, because I’m typically such a Waugh fan. This book, though, has almost none of his usual wit evident in works like like Scoop, A Handful of Dust, or even dramatic stories like his famous Brideshead Revisited.
It, instead, has very thick, overwrought sentences. The story follows Helena – the woman who will become Saint Helena – through her life. It’s mostly fiction, tied together with the thin bits of fact they had in the 1940s. It’s marked by Waugh’s absolute conversion to Catholicism, yet unmarked by more than just a handful of memorable characters. The plot is episodic and largely unemotional until the last quarters. The language never quite captures Roman antiquity so much as it hearkens back to the overworked sentences of the Victorian romantics.
I did like how he explains the typical, constant violence of Rome. I am fascinated why conversion to Christianity doesn’t seem to deeply affect people’s character flaws. I wish Helena were more fully realized; skipping over thirty years of her life in a few pages does a lot of damage. ...more
Simon Gray’s play The Common Pursuit depicts a group of Cambridge students intent on starting a literary magazine. At first, they are full of hope andSimon Gray’s play The Common Pursuit depicts a group of Cambridge students intent on starting a literary magazine. At first, they are full of hope and bravado, committed to their high ideals… And then you know exactly where this is going. It takes twenty years to get there, with few surprises on the road to self-delusion and disappointment in the world and others.
It’s not that Gray doesn’t have a sturdy sense of structure. In fact, his problem is too much structure. I was dearly hoping for more surprise. Also, nothing about this is particularly theatrical in the sense of connecting to the live audience, using uniquely theatrical conventions, or delighting. Oh, sure there, a sweet sort of Anglophile itch that can be scratched by the witty repartee. There’s also a comfort in the lack of shock – that sort of comfort is not really why I go to plays.
The characters are pleasant enough, but they are more stereotypes than fully fleshed human beings. They might be relatively interesting for actors to play – especially in figuring out how to fill out what are basically clichéd personalities. They’d definitely be less interesting for me to watch.
It’s not the worst play ever written, but it isn’t the best. It has a sort of solid, predictable architecture that is – from a traditionalist standpoint – impressive. As a piece of living, breathing theater, it just doesn’t have enough fire or creativity to do more than merely distract an audience for a couple hours. ...more
The Year We Left Home is about a family between two wars – Vietnam and Iraq. It’s also about them fighting between two ideas; traditionalism and moderThe Year We Left Home is about a family between two wars – Vietnam and Iraq. It’s also about them fighting between two ideas; traditionalism and modernism. The Erickson family are born and raised in small Grenada, Iowa – a farm town. They are the product of strict, industrious Norwegian stock. The Ericksons' old life is pulling apart at the seams as kids leave Iowa, as the family navigates tragedies, and as modern life inserts itself into their DNA.
The idea of telling an entire novel in vignettes isn’t new, but it’s a gimmick that has really caught hold as people’s attention spans shorten. With her skill as a short story writer, author Jean Thompson seems adept to turn in the next great American novel. She covers 3 decades of this family's life with episodes, leaving the reader to connect the lines between the chapters.
This is a good book, but it feels lacking.
It starts off so promisingly, with an early 70s Iowa wedding. Ryan is watching his older sister Anita tie the knot, when cousin Chip – a loner and damaged Vietnam vet – comes out of the woodwork. Here, Thompson shows not only her keen ability to paint a picture with words; she also has a sense of humor:
Ryan thinks of his lineage, the Peersons: “If you wanted a tree taken down or a truck winched out of a ditch or a quarter of a cow packaged for your meat locker, you called a Peerson. If you wanted lighthearted company, you call someone else.”
That sense of humor seems to leave her for most of the rest of the book.
On top of that, the vignettes aren’t always as powerful or as memorable as they should be, like when Anita goes to a family farm auction. Her husband is a banker; her family is being foreclosed on. The tension is magnificent; not all the other stories have this.
Finally, Thomson gives short shrift to a few characters – the dad, the mom, the younger sister and brother – for Ryan, Anita, and Chip. To me, the brother Blake, who decides to stay in Iowa, has just as fascinating motives as his brother and cousin who left.
Buried in The Year We Left Home are a lot of intriguing ideas – some not fully formed. One is the changing of the guard from family farms to corporate farms in America’s heartland. (I am from Iowa, too, so I know it goes beyond Farm Aid.) Secondly, the sense of who they are as a family and as a subculture is never fully realized. About half the chapters plod on instead of diving into these themes.
Thompson has some great moments: Ryan bringing a college girlfriend home to meet the family, Anita confronting her husband’s alcoholism, Chip roping Ryan into a Wild West scheme. Other chapters, Blake’s business and Ryan’s family’s trip to Italy, just seem to sit in their place in the book, marking out a space and time before the next chapter. I can honestly say that the end of the book wasn’t interesting at all, as if the goal was just to wrap the whole thing up and move on. ...more
Lila is a beautifully written testament to Robinson’s power with language. It also may be a little frustrating in that there isn’t a plot that drivesLila is a beautifully written testament to Robinson’s power with language. It also may be a little frustrating in that there isn’t a plot that drives everything forward, forcing you to devour page after page. More importantly, the protagonist withholds information from the reader for no reason - except for the author to draw the book out. It’s the third novel after Gilead (the Pulitzer Prize winner) and Home.
Our story is set in the mid-1950s, mostly, with flashbacks to the early century, the Depression and the Dust Bowl.
Lila is the second wife of Iowa Reverend Ames – she’s a homeless migrant worker who wandered into the small Iowa town of Gilead one spring; She and the elderly Rev. John Ames meet and fell in love and marry even before they sense the full breadth of connection to each other – how each other fulfills the other’s loneliness and need for home.
Lila’s not very educated, and she likes to dismiss things that are too esoteric, not about work or tangible life. As a sick, small child, she was stolen from her family’s neglectful care. Another migrant worker, a hard-edged and deformed woman named Doll who wanted something to care for, raised Lila. Lila and Doll lived on the road and in the wilderness with other migrant workers. They settled down for short times (to get Lila some education) and they suffered through the Depression and the Dust Bowl traveling across the middle of the United States.
Now that she is married to Reverend Ames, Lila cannot reconcile her life of wanderlust and hard living with the grace and small-town religiosity. She struggles through the meanings of the Bible, and she rankles against the kindness of the Iowans around her. Their grace and mercy confuse her. (In this sense, Lila reminds us of the second book in the Gilead series, the wonderful Home.)
A lot of Robinson’s exploration is about God’s grace and mercy. There’s the highly educated theological talk and its connection and disconnection with common living – Calvin meets making food, planting gardens, keeping body and soul together. In this sense, Robinson shines. We feel the author’s own spirituality and her struggles; we know her research and how she makes academic things more human.
Where the novel failed for me was in the withholding of information. Most of this story is told within the head of Lila, our protagonist. She would know the stuff she withholds till the end. She would live her whole history. Instead, this feels like the author doling it out instead of Lila. I wish Robinson had taken an approach more like Home, where we stood outside of Lila a bit. It doesn’t make sense to be in her head and not have all the information she has. It just seems a gimmick to draw the book out. From a protagonist’s perspective – and from the reader’s – it fails the lithmus test of uniformity, and it feels unfair to the reader.
The book doesn’t have much of a plot, either, and that can thrill or frustrate people. It goes along at its own pace, concerned with its own things – specifically if Lila will stay with the Reverend, and if she will allow herself to be “tamed” by the community’s grace and mercy. Because Robinson is so gifted a writer, it’s worth it page by page, even with the protagonist keeping secrets from the readers wandering in her head. ...more