Archive for the Book Reviews Category

The Future of “The Secret History”

Posted in Book Reviews on October 25, 2014 by onlookerslowdown

The GoldfinchThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t think I would be able to count all of the books that I have read during my life so far. However, there are only a small number of books that I re-read on a regular basis. Stephen King’s “Insomnia” is on that list, and so are Annie Proulx’s “The Shipping News,” John Irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” and Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.” One of the books I re-read most frequently, though, is Donna Tartt’s debut novel “The Secret History.”

And so when Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” came out in 2013, 11 years after her second novel, I grabbed it for my Kindle as soon as I could. However, it sat in my reading list, as I was waiting for some time to give it my undivided attention. What I found was, in addition to a rich novel of its own right, a set of crib notes to the motivations behind “The Secret History.”

In “The Secret History,” a group of students who do not fit into mainstream society in any discernible way cover up the accidental killing of a local farmer and then the extremely intentional murder of one of their own, when the first secret is about to unravel. The main character, one Richard Papen, is a young man aesthetically displeased with his upbringing. His surroundings at Hampden College in Vermont look like what he thinks college — and life — should be. The dorms look like cottages; the fall brings apple trees and red-cheeked girls just finishing their field hockey. However, Hampden is a college for people who did not do well anywhere else, and Richard and his cohorts have separated themselves from the rest of the college, as they take all of their courses from Julian Morrow, the Greek teacher who even has his own building on the edge of campus.

It is the pursuit of beauty for its own sake that undoes Richard; as his initial advisor at Hampden tells him, beauty can do nothing without truth. However, Richard falls in love with a group that turns out to be cold-blooded; gives his heart to a classmate who does not appear to have an affective cell in her body; he ends up in Southern California, just as wretched and alone at the end as he was when he first looked at brochures of Hampden College.

And so now, 15 years after “The Secret History” and 11 years after a wonderful mystery entitled “The Little Friend,” Tartt has taken on the topic of beauty again. One of the Greek epigrams that the crew in “The Secret History” learns is that “Beauty is harsh,” but nowhere is it harsher than in “The Goldfinch.”

The title of the book comes from a painting that Theodore Decker, the main character, loves because his mother loved it. The last day he spends with his mother is the day terrorists attack the art museum in New York City where they are visiting. Theodore ends up dazed in a gallery with an old man who gives him a ring and a cryptic destination — the green bell at an intersection in the city. He also spirits away “The Goldfinch” with him, “saving” it from the rubble of the museum but never quite managing to return it, or tell others where it is from.

Theodore loves the beauty of the painting so much that he keeps it with him always, but he is so afraid of losing it that he hides it inside a bag and then squirrels it away int a public storage unit — the irony, of course, being that no one gets to see the beauty of the painting at all.

In the painting, the bird is chained to its perch, much the same way in which the painting is held captive in its sack (or so Theodore thinks, but that would be a spoiler).

With his mother dead and his father having disappeared, Theodore moves in which the family of a friend to avoid the hell of life with a foster family; his father eventually shows up and drags him out to a new life in Las Vegas (as in “The Secret History,” there is nothing west of the Mississippi that is aesthetically pleasing). But his father ends up committing suicide, leaving Theodore once again quite alone.

Instead of being left at the mercy of Social Services, though, Theodore moves in with a man he had befriended shortly after the museum disaster — the person who lives behind the door with the green bell. James Hobart had been the business partner of the old man who gave Theodore the ring in the museum gallery. Theodore learns how to run Hobart’s business so that he gets out of trouble with the IRS; unfortunately, Theodore is fraudulently selling the furniture that Hobart is restoring by billing it as having a much finer provenance than it actually has, replacing the very real wrath of the IRS with the potential destruction of the business by ruining its reputation with buyers.

And so the old truism “Beauty is harsh” returns with a vengeance in “The Goldfinch.” A bitter rogue in the antiques industry uncovers the fraud and begins to blackmail Theodore; he realizes that the painting is not where he thought it was; the two loves of his life (Boris and Pippa) are not accessible to him in the way he wants; the woman he asks to marry him (Kitsey) is as ambivalent about him as he is about her. The questions that the end of the novel asks about the sufficiency of doing one’s best in life seem more like Theodore’s own soul-searching than anything else.

The best parts of Tartt’s writing involve the epic sweep of the tale, as well as the intricate workings of the description. Many reviewers compare her to Dickens in terms of the scope of her stories. I prefer to compare her to Fitzgerald, who seems to have been just as anxious to ensure that each word is in the right place before moving on to the next sentence, the next paragraph, even the next page. It is one thing to mass produce literature in the vein of today’s James Patterson. It is quite another to edge, one unit of thought at a time, across the vast canvas of a novel, until one steps back and realizes that a masterwork is at hand.

Both Theodore Decker and Richard Papen struggle to find a place in the modern world. No matter how many drinks or drugs they try, their very square shapes do not resolve to the round holes that the world has waiting for them. It is this tension that makes them characters of interest. It is the unstinting lens that Tartt gives the reader to view them that has added “The Goldfinch” to the list of books I plan to re-read. And re-read some more.

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“The Wrestler” Takes On “The Da Vinci Code”

Posted in Book Reviews on March 21, 2014 by onlookerslowdown

The PsalterThe Psalter by Galen Watson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you enjoy historical fiction, thrillers about hidden secrets, all mixed in with individual drama, then Galen Watson’s “The Psalter” is a fun, fun read. The story switches back and forth between a present-day intrigue that is set in what may well be the last days of the papacy, depending on which prophecy you believe, and an intriguing period of time just before the advent of the Dark Ages, when what would become the modern Church was still very much a fragile institution clinging for all its life to the Italian peninsula, at the mercy of the Holy Roman Empire but also extremely vulnerable to invasions by Muslims from across the Mediterranean Sea.

In the modern section, the story follows Michael Romano, a brawler-turned-priest who also happens to be extremely interested in ancient scriptural texts. A papal secretary is murdered while carrying an ancient psalter. The psalter itself is not particularly valuable until invisible writings are discovered to have been added. An Aramaic (the original language that Jesus spoke) gospel declaring that Jesus had a twin named Thomas appears to have been left on the same page as some of the ancient psalms. And so a chase around Europe begins, involving a lovely translator and her father in Paris, leading up to an explosive confrontation at St. Peter’s in Rome.

The medieval section also follows the trail of these documents which were much more newly heretical — it took the Church a long time to decide which gospels were the true ones — as well as a Muslim plan to take the writings of the Church. There are parallels to the modern characters in this story as well — a lovely young woman who is very skilled at translation, a bishop with whom she forms an impossible relationship, and an elderly father figure who tries to help them both move toward the best.

The historical detail in this novel is its best feature. Creating a realistic sense of the Middle Ages is not easy, but the dusty, dangerous life in that era comes through in each section from the past. The intrigues that plagued the papacy back then, just one of the factors dooming Europe to centuries of darkness, come to life in ways that few stories have taken on.

The plot does wander into the whimsical a bit. The modern story loses focus a bit, as the real motives of the Children of the Book go from conflicting to confusing, but while it takes a few re-readings of the ending to understand where the modern story is heading, this is an interesting tale about dogma, greed and human nature.

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Spine-Tingling Short Fiction: Newton’s “The Reconstruction Descending”

Posted in Book Reviews on February 26, 2014 by onlookerslowdown

The Reconstruction DescendingThe Reconstruction Descending by Newton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The short story is a genre that should be more popular than it is. The shrinking national attention span should be creating more of a clamor for stories that range from several to a few pages in length. Writing such as Newton’s “The Reconstruction Descending” will create more of a desire for shorter fiction because of its ability to bring swift hammer blows of visceral meaning.

There are six stories in this short collection; if there is a common theme, it is the hostility that humanity faces, not only from the natural world, but from other worlds and even from its own creations. If Stephen King made his mark chronicling the various darknesses that swell inside us, Newton will make his mark leaving unsettling visions percolating in our minds long after we have put the stories down.

The best story in this collection is the last one, “Breathing Room.” It imagines a world in which people can use SimBots to spend time with recreations of loved ones who have passed away. A rogue judge uses the technology to recreate time with his wife; the fact that he is unspeakably cruel to the SimBot triggers a real simulation of his wife. Instead of the compliant blonde he expects, the angry, dead soul comes back to life and occupies the SimBot, with a vivid outcome.

“Quality of Life” turns cancer from a fatal disease to a malicious force that seeks to take over the bodies of its sufferers. The haunting battle between an elderly woman and her cancer is one that, shall we say, makes me less likely to swim in a lake near a nursing home.

The most effective parts of these stories are the philosophical questions that underlie them. There are some stories that could use a little more development, such as “Gifted” and “An Angel and the Devil Over Coffee.” The title story, “The Reconstruction Descending,” is powerful because of the existential chaos it believes to be coming toward us all.

All in all, these stories are definitely a diversion from what is mainstream. If you like your fiction to make you think about uncomfortable topics, this is a collection you will enjoy.

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$39 In Your Pocket…To Go From Michigan to Texas

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , on January 14, 2013 by onlookerslowdown

The Dirty Parts of the BibleThe Dirty Parts of the Bible by Sam Torode
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a parent of triplets who are almost teenagers, I sometimes worry that they don’t have all of the information they need to make it smoothly to high school graduation — and beyond. But then I stop and remember that my parents spent quite a bit of time giving me a lot of information that I’m sure they thought I should use. It got filed away, somewhere, and a lot of it pops into my head, now and then. A lot of the conclusions I have come to, though, I have found on my own.

My aunt posed an interesting question on Facebook not too long ago — specifically, what the purpose is of an overarching moral authority, since we have to develop our own systems of morals as it is. It is this desire to provide some sort of moral authority that has led members of the evangelical wing of Christianity to start pumping out books that throw the Bible into a theological dryer and turn on the hot cycle, trying to shrink 66 books (more, if you have the Apocrypha) that include stories of God’s chosen people pretending that their wives are their sisters, and letting local kings have their way with them (Abraham), refusing to feed their siblings unless they can have the family birthright in exchange (Jacob), as well as passages that describe the erotic love between a husband and wife (Song of Solomon), into a pamphlet that has all of life’s questions answered with a series of bullet points.

These tinhorn theologians have also turned out some fiction as well, which tries to shoehorn as much of their doctrine as they can into the stories they write. The problem, of course, is that making theme run your story is kind of like letting egg be the dominant taste in your chocolate cake. The egg is an important part of the foundation, but it should work silently to produce the glorious taste of chocolate, not dominate the outcome.

The same is true with theme in fiction, a lesson which the Tim LaHayes of Christian fiction have yet to learn; the fact that the “Left Behind” series did so well is a testament to the fearsome power of the collective that drives the evangelical juggernaut, even today.

Every now and then, though, a book comes out that has ideas that resonate with Christians — all the while telling a compelling story that also resonates with other readers. This is how the gospel originally worked, you know: Jesus did not have a ready-made audience prepared to listen to his theology and nod, almost automatically, with each sentence.

Instead, his message shocked, surprised, rang true. So it was with Leif Enger’s “Peace Like a River,” which tells a story that shows the power of faith and prayer in a lyrical and beautiful way — and lets the story have its head, instead of whipping it and driving it along a predetermined path.

And so it is with Sam Torode’s “The Dirty Parts of the Bible.” The plot is a modern retelling of the apocryphal book of Tobit — set in the Great Depression. Tobias Henry is the son of Baptist preacher Malachi Henry, who has wandered far from his seminary training in Texas to the town of Remus, Michigan, where he preaches hellfire and brimstone in the cold of the American north. After talking down once too many times to his wife (and getting a frozen chicken to the head as a result), Malachi ends up drunk on apple cider and crashes his car into the side of the church, disgraced — and no longer the pastor. A hail of bird poop has rendered the old ex-pastor blind, as well.

Given 30 days to get out of the parsonage, Malachi sends Tobias to Glen Rose, Texas, with a map that has directions to a dry well on the old family farm — where Malachi has hidden a satchel full of cash from his days in a band — before he went to seminary. This is the story of Tobias’ wrestling with his beliefs, with the black-and-white theology that makes many Southern Baptists so unhelpful when it comes to showing others the love that made Jesus compelling to all who met him, with his own sexual awakening. Tobias leaves with $39 — enough, back then, to take the train to Texas. Of course, as with anything that seems so easy, so black-and-white, Tobias learns much more along a way that becomes so difficult. Along the way, he becomes a person whom the Lord might well watch with a smile, because of the gifts of the storyteller.

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A Theme In Search of a Plot

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , on January 12, 2013 by onlookerslowdown

The Miracle InspectorThe Miracle Inspector by Helen Smith
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The worst parts of human nature have been on display in literature since the very beginning. The cruelty of Agamemnon, the selfish envy of Cain, and the folly of Creon are three of the oldest impressions of human nature in the canon.

However, it took the progress of the twentieth century to take the darkest parts of our nature and make them the defining tenets of our future. Writers like George Orwell, Margaret Atwood, Aldous Huxley and Ray Bradbury made us wonder what the world would actually turn into if the same forces that brought us the Holocaust, the nuclear bomb, mustard gas, and the pogrom were given free reign to run the world.

These writers brought us tales about the settlement of Mars, life under the constant surveillance of Big Brother, a society in which all of us were segregated into different biological and psychological groups from birth, and a new America in which women were assigned as property, rather than free agents in their own existence. The works of these writers shocked their readers — first, by their writings; second, by the elements of their tales that would come true, in their own way.

Dystopia now, of course, is still popular. If you turn on the program “Supernatural” or “Revolution” or “Fringe” — if you go see movies like “The Box” or “The Adjustment Bureau — you can see that we still enjoy looking at how awful we could become.

The problem with dystopian literature is that it loses its shock value over time. Helen Smith’s “The Miracle Inspector” would have been an amazing story in 1960, or even in 1980. Lucas is the Miracle Inspector, in charge of going out into London, after an apocalyptic series of attacks that has seen the world partitioned and under tight UN control, to verify the existence of miracles. Usually these take the form of religious images appearing in odd places, like recently baked cakes. His wife is Angela, who is chafing under the burden of being forced to stay at home all day, all the jobs having been reserved for men, in order to eliminate unemployment. She is not sure what she wants in life, because she has never thought to want anything more than what she has. She and Lucas both have a vague desire to leave London and go to Cornwall which, in their minds, is an oasis where there would be none of the oppression, none of the randomly disappearing men — just a place to start a family.

But then Lucas comes across Maureen, and her daughter, Christina. Whether you view the miracle girl, with her name a letter away from representing one of the world’s major religions, as a picture of the ideal or not is strictly up to you. Maureen did nominate her daughter as a miracle, but other than an ability to smile when someone she likes is in the room, it is unclear why Maureen nominated her daughter; other than the fact that she is a child, it is unclear why Angela feels such an attachment to the two of them. Given that Lucas is trying to sneak himself and his wife out of London, it is also unclear why Lucas would take the dangerous step of taking his wife on a forbidden trip to visit Maureen every day.

The interrogations to which Lucas is necessarily subjected (this IS a dystopian novel, after all, in which the government operates a bunch of shadowy ministries) have the finality of Orwell’s Room 101, but none of the thematic resonance. We do not know why Lucas’ world is the way it is; we just know that we never want to end up in a prison like his. The beauty of the novel comes in its final chapters, and in the epilogue, even as the plot winds up in a way that is as unpredictable and inexplicable as it is lyric.

This novel is written on an interesting idea — namely, that the governments of the world’s superpowers are slowly discrediting anyone who opposes them, and that it is only a matter of time until the blanket of oppression covers us all, especially since the blanket is of our own knitting. However, the idea never populates the spirits of its characters to the point where they have a new story to tell us. Yes, we can be depraved; yes, we will do awful things to one another. Orwell had the advantage of surprise, though, when he told us this; before, we hadn’t quite thought of it. For new dystopian works to be worth our time, though, they must plumb new ground. They must, in other words, confront the miracle — not simply drag us through the same sandboxes that the writers before them have already plundered.

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Three Characters In Search of a Purpose

Posted in Book Reviews on October 1, 2012 by onlookerslowdown

A Mind of WinterA Mind of Winter by Shira Nayman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Judging from the news, we are just beginning to reap the harvest of psychiatric disorders that will haunt our military servicemen as they return from years of war without much in the way of leave. The experience of being constantly on tour, or about to leave for another tour, has stresses of its own — let alone the ethical disconnect that makes murder and violence not only legal but a requirement.

Because of the brevity of our national attention span, though, these problems have not spread to the rest of us. One must look back to the Second World War to find a conflict that affected so many of us. The mass enlistments, along with the social upheaval that drove Rosie the Riveter to work and forced us to ration everything from gasoline to pantyhose changed our nation — and changed every nation that the war touched. Three people in particular (Robert, Christine and Marilyn) find themselves adrift in the odd moral seas that the outrages of the first half of the twentieth century stirred up.

Robert seems to be running from war crimes investigators; Christine has fled a host of horrors in her own past, including a disillusionment in her own relationship with Robert, for the forgetfulness of Shanghai. The easy availability of opium allows Christine to forget the abuse that marked her childhood, as well as the forbidden love that ended her tenure as an English schoolteacher. Once she found Robert wanting, she lost all hope in life and headed east, having only her sensual looks to keep her from starvation, once her savings run out. Once Robert takes on a new name and heads to America, Marilyn (and her husband Simon) are a part of his salon, floating in and out of his lovely home in Ellis Park. A character traveling through all of their lives is Barnaby, who is adept at luring women for his own gratification, but stopping at the point of commitment. He is only too happy to have an affair with Marilyn, but he makes it quite clear that he does not want her to leave Simon for him. His feelings for Christine (whom he began to ply with opium as part of a relationship prophetic of the Kardashian Era) seemed to be stronger, but by the time he finds Marilyn, he has learned the parts of a relationship which he likes best.

Several mysteries are in play here — the nature of Robert’s crimes in the shadowy days of the Second World War being the most cryptic. However, the choices that Marilyn and Christine will make are ultimately just as compelling. The narrative moves from Christine’s point of view to Marilyn’s, and then to Robert’s, and Shira Nayman ably slips from one voice to another; the sedated Christine reminds one of a languid Ingrid Bergman, while Marilyn could well be John Cusack’s (at first) incredulous girlfriend in “Being John Malkovich.” The imagery of postwar Shanghai and the dark moonlight in which Marilyn, Barnaby and (ultimately) Robert all move create a captivating world.

The poem that is the inspiration for the title is Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man.” Without giving away the resolution to all of these mysteries, I can report that while the 30-minute-sitcom optimism that has come to formulate our national attention span will not do much more than keep us entertained, as the powers that be fumble away more of our future while we sit glued to our entertainments, the courageous depths of true faith and hope can bring redemption, just as they always have.

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Take a look at Matthew Pearl’s latest vision

Posted in Book Reviews on September 3, 2012 by onlookerslowdown

The TechnologistsThe Technologists by Matthew Pearl
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It would take a vivid imagination to conjure up a way to dump enough iron in Boston Harbor to interfere with the compass of every ship that comes in — and spook thousands of superstitious sailors. Even more so to find a way to rig all of the fire hydrants on a city block so that they release a noxious gas that turns all of the glass on that block to liquid. And then to use the railway system to…well, I can’t tell you everything.

I can tell you that this latest offering from the author of The Dante Club is not only lively in terms of the hijinks that its characters unravel, but it is also dynamic in terms of presenting members of the first graduating class from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The rivalry that a practical school had with its liberal-arts sibling, the (even back then) sainted Harvard, the tensions that were still simmering years after the end of the Civil War, and even the foibles of young love all make an appearance.

The best parts of this story center on the struggle that former factory workers undergo to find acceptance on a university campus — back then, the idea that college was for everyone would have been laughable. Pearl’s historical novels are exhaustively researched, but read nothing like a research paper. The fruits of his labor take the form of a novel that is an open doorway into the past — which should be the goal of any historical fiction writer. The characterization and the research make this a book well worth reading.

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