A work of art. Stunningly written, and incredibly original in its braiding of memoir and nature writing and history. In a nutshell: Macdonald, a naturA work of art. Stunningly written, and incredibly original in its braiding of memoir and nature writing and history. In a nutshell: Macdonald, a naturalist and academic in Cambridge and devoted falconer since youth, adopts a goshawk (a famously difficult and murderous bird) in the wake of her father's sudden death. What follows is not just a memoir of grief and nature's salvation, but a movingly developed parallel to the story of T. H. White--The Sword in the Stone author and novelist whose fraught life and quest to raise a goshawk Macdonald finds striking solace in. This thread can sometimes feel a little overdeveloped, but it's still vital to the book, and like nothing I've ever encountered in a memoir. ...more
Meh. The pacing is not bad here, but the use of the first person feels awfully heavy-handed in this book, enough so that I ended it feeling like I'd jMeh. The pacing is not bad here, but the use of the first person feels awfully heavy-handed in this book, enough so that I ended it feeling like I'd just read a breathy, borderline histrionic soap opera. Gone Girl is better (if one must make the comparison). But The Girl on the Train could be salvaged by a tightly-edited movie adaptation that takes us out of the characters' own narrations and casts some terrific actors....more
Though Dept. of Speculation isn't really a novel--it sometimes feels like a prose poem or a string of aphorisms--it's an incredibly original and econoThough Dept. of Speculation isn't really a novel--it sometimes feels like a prose poem or a string of aphorisms--it's an incredibly original and economical gut-puncher about marriage and parenthood and anxiety and ambition. Beautifully, even fiercely, written....more
I really loved this book--it's an engrossing mix of narrative reporting and memoir (though more the former) that goes beyond the headlines about RussiI really loved this book--it's an engrossing mix of narrative reporting and memoir (though more the former) that goes beyond the headlines about Russia to reveal it as a kind of deeply, psychologically warped reality show. This is a place where illusion is so ingrained into the fibers of power and money that run the country that it’s a joke to imagine a shred of objectivity anywhere. The nation has been whiplashed by history, one regime crumbling into the next, from communism to democracy to a mafia state to oligarchy. So the Russian elite have come to indulge in the act of dissimulating in order to adapt; they know that ultimately, “everything is PR.” So conforming to the current authority, Pomarantsev writes, is “raised to the level of aesthetic act.”
Pomarantsev is a Russian-born British TV producer, and when he goes back to his parents’ homeland, he has the chance to document some incredible human narratives: a prostitute who commits suicide after descending into a cult that masquerades as a self-improvement support group, a gangster-turned-director of films about his own life, and a self-made Moscow multimillionaire businessman who wheels from the daily m.o. of corruption and government bribes to throwing fabulously hedonistic parties at night. These are just a few of Pomarantsev’s threads. Beyond them, of course, lies the Kremlin, the sun around which life in Russia must revolve, owning “all forms of political discourse, [not letting] any independent movements develop outside of its walls. Its Moscow can feel like an oligarchy in the morning and a democracy in the afternoon, a monarchy for dinner and a totalitarian state by bedtime.”
These human stories are all powerful testaments to just how deep a reach the state can have in citizens’ lives. Putin is rarely mentioned by name here, but the roles he plays as a kind of postmodern dictator aim to keep the population “entertained, distracted, constantly exposed to geopolitical nightmares.” As Pomarantsev points out, there’s no room for true opposition, because even “liberal,” western-leaning parties are state-sanctioned, their discourse actually controlled by the Kremlin itself. Consequently, no matter your place in Russian society, to be a member of it is to be “encouraged to have one identity one moment and the opposite one the next...you can leave all your guilt with your ‘public’ self. That wasn’t you stealing that budget/making that propaganda show/bending your knee to the President, just a role you were playing; you’re a good person really. It’s not so much about denial. It’s not even about suppressing dark desires. You can see everything you do, all your sins. You just reorganize your emotional life so as not to care.” ...more
I had mixed feelings about The Goldfinch. I thought it far from deserving the Pulitzer, and it veered between surprisingly boring and genuinely movingI had mixed feelings about The Goldfinch. I thought it far from deserving the Pulitzer, and it veered between surprisingly boring and genuinely moving. Tartt’s settings and set pieces were so real that they were thrilling on their own, too, and I was glad I read it.
So I picked up The Secret History. Forget the fact that Tartt isn’t exactly a prose stylist, and that The Secret History’s characters are unlikeable and essentially jaded middle-aged navel-gazers stuffed into the bodies of drugged-up young adults. That didn’t bother me as much as it could have, and I thought the first half of the book was pretty engaging. (And to be fair, this is a debut novel impressive for its absorbing setting and its obsession with all the perverse and mysterious beauty inherent in studying the classics. The elevator pitch--Why did a group of eccentric, well-to-do young scholars conspire to kill their friend at a small Vermont college?--is a great hook.)
Things really went downhill in the second half, post-Bunny’s death: could it be any more obvious that Tartt hardly took an edit on this? My wife used to work for a book editor, and after this editor met with Tartt when The Goldfinch was being shopped around, the takeaway was that edits were going to be light. So here is a writer defensive of her words--somewhat understandable when you spend a decade writing a novel--but the obvious downside is the sheer amount of description that bogs down The Secret History, that makes you feel so passive to be its reader. Richard tells and tells and tells, and this is sometimes narratively artless and stultifying. How about the prelude to Bunny’s funeral, which chronicles his loathsome Connecticut family? This has to be the most needless chapter in literary fiction from the last 25 years. I hate wanting to skim, but there were more than enough moments in The Secret History where I just wanted to know what the hell was actually going to happen next, to see the great revelation about what was motivating these characters.
Richard is certainly an unreliable narrator, but not in the mesmerizing way of Gatsby or Holden Caulfield or Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. Instead he’s unreliable in his ability to tell a really good story, and by blathering on in so many stretches it’s as if he’s looking to suspend any chance of arriving at a deeper consciousness about what’s really motivated him and his friends to architect a murder. He is supposed to be oblivious and naive, I realize, but he evolved out of this much too slowly for me.
Another thing: Julian. It was such a missed opportunity to explicitly make him a more sinister part of the plot, to have sponsored Henry & co.'s murderous bacchanal, to have been a party to Bunny’s murder all along. I guess it's left up to the reader's imagination, and perhaps it was Tartt's intention to keep the suggestion so subtle as to be fleeting. (Or to assume the reader would understand that Julian's teachings--which happen off-page--were a big catalyst.) But I really thought the novel was going to indulge that direction more, and I was disappointed when it didn't....more