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“The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt

It took some time, but I finally finished all 771 pages of “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt, very likely the longest novel on this year’s Notable Books list. This book has received plenty of attention. I felt like I was arriving a little late to the ball.

It’s the story of Theo, whose mother dies in a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York when Theo is 13. In fact, he was with her that day. In the ensuing chaos he ends up in possession of a priceless Dutch painting, “The Goldfinch.” The course of Theo’s life once his mother is gone includes his stay with a rich classmate’s family, a drug-colored exile in Las Vegas where he meets his best-friend-for-life, Boris, and a return to New York where Theo goes into business with one of the warmest-hearted men in America. The novel ends where it begins, Theo in Amsterdam with blood on his hands.

 I found myself surprising intrigued by all of this. One reviewer called the book “Dickensian,” and that helped me put the unlikely and usually crazy characters, not to mention the unlikely plot, in perspective. I liked how people seemed to come and go. Another reviewer referred to the books’ “bewitching urgency.” I found myself liking Theo despite his passivity and alarming tendency to make poor choices over and over and over. I enjoyed the long riffs on art history and furniture restoration. I didn’t take the whole thing seriously, but read it more like an educated romp.

 Some of my friends found it lacking. Few books could live up to the hype of “The Goldfinch.” There seems to be general agreement that Tartt would have improved the novel had she edited out a hundred or so pages. Sometimes key information seemed to missing even in a section filled with dense detail.

 Looking back on it, I see that even though I read it from a shallow place, I was touched by Theo’s descriptions of his grief and loneliness, by the painting’s impact on his sense of himself, by my ragged hope that his friend Hobie really was as warm-hearted as he seemed. I made myself slow down for Tartt’s final-chapter reflections on the impact a piece of art can have, and found them true to my own experience.

 In the end, I recommend it. Not as the Great American Novel, but as a one-of-a-kind work that pulls together a remarkable collection of personalities, topics, and places. I salute Tartt for her writer’s mind that chose it all, then wove it all into place.

“A Tale for the Time Being”

Once again, the American Library Association’s Notable Books list led me to a book I hadn’t heard much about –“A Tale for the Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki. In reading through reviews, I’ve come to realize that plenty of people were talking about it, and I’d missed it somehow.

 Ozeki created this novel in two strands. One is a diary kept by a girl in Japan early in the twenty-first century, the other a third person narrative about an author named Ruth who finds that diary, washed up on the Pacific short in Canada, along with some letters and a watch, all kept dry in a Hello Kitty lunchbox wrapped in plastic bags.

 The girl, Nao, says she intends to write the story of her remarkable 104-year-old great grandmother, a Zen Buddhist nun. Instead she writes primarily about herself, and much more harrowing, about how she’s bullied at school to the point of rape. Nao is no angel, but neither should a young person know such isolation, or regard suicide as a reasonable response.

 Ruth becomes more and more pulled in as she slowly reads Nao’s story. Even though she realizes that years have passed since Nao wrote the diary, she feels an urgent need to communicate to someone that Nao may be a danger to herself. Ruth had developed writer’s block while working on a memoir, and Nao’s story seems to the fill the void it left. The life Ruth and her artist husband have chosen, on an island with barely 50 other people and crazy weather, contrasts vividly with Nao’s life in Tokyo.

 Contrasts propel both the action and the ideas. The contrast between Ruth and Nao. The contrasts between Nao’s previous happy life in California, her sad life in Tokyo, her great-grandmother’s life as a nun and her late uncle’s life as a kamikaze. The contrast between the tiny population of Ruth’s island with the number of times people drop in on her. The contrast between what people initially think of each other, and what they later learn. The contrasts between ideas of time, mortality, love, cruelty, and suffering.

 Ozeki successfully creates a whole of these parts. Nao introduces big ideas despite her youth and apparent failure at school. Ruth and her husband reasonably discuss and build on those ideas as they work their way through the diary. Ozeki creates an energetic young person’s voice as effectively as she describes the married life of two introverted artists. Ozeki’s willingness to explore the despair wrought by bullying and isolation intensified the entire novel. While I sensed the action beginning to fizzle as I neared the conclusion, that’s more a quibble than a problem.

 I recommend this generally to people who enjoy literary fiction. I certainly recommend it to book groups. The novel struck me as an extended conversation between people who’d never met each other, and I sense that there’s plenty here for readers to keep that conversation going.

“The Faraway Nearby” by Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit’s “The Faraway Nearby” exemplifies my favorite thing about the American Library Association’s Notable Books List–I find excellent books there that I hadn’t heard about previously.

 “The Faraway Nearby” begins with apricots, picked from Solnit’s mother’s tree. The three boxes of apricots were too many to manage, her mother too far gone with Alzheimer’s to know. Solnit’s preservation of the fruit via jams, liqueurs, and other devices contributes one of the first metaphors in this rich book.

 I was intrigued by the title, “The Faraway Nearby.” Here is what she says about that, “After years in New York  City, Georgia O’Keeffe moved to rural New Mexico, from which she would sign her letters to the people she loved, ‘from the faraway nearby.'” (p. 108)

 Solnit employs thirteen chapters, the first six leading to the seventh, “knot.” The remaining six mirror the first, going backwards to apricots once again, ending where she began. Within this firm structure, she rambles amid her mother’s story, her own cancer scare, and an artistic escape to Iceland. How she works in Che Guevara, arctic explorers, Scheherazade, Frankenstein, Buddhists, and others, is a wonder. And yet it feels like excellent conversation over coffee, how she goes from one story to another, linked by ideas. Throughout, she reflects on how we tell our stories. She considers how we work over the material in our past to create a promising future.

 I found particular resonance in this excerpt, as she describes how her friends took her in hand through a serious health scare. “People gathered from all directions, and I was taken care of beautifully…Afterward, during my convalescence, I occasionally wished that life was always like this, that I was always being showered with flowers and assistance and solicitousness, but you only get it when you need it. If you’re lucky, you get it when you need it. To know that it was there when I needed it changed everything a little in the long run.” (p. 122) This perfectly describes my own experience when my husband died, and she’s right. It has changed everything a little.

 At first, I was put off by MY wanting the action to move forward more quickly. I won’t recommend this to readers who want to march through a plot. It was worth slowing down to savor the extras that she brings to her story of herself. I do indeed recommend this to those who enjoy a lusciously long conversation through unexpected imagery and reflection, as if the coffee pot would never run dry.

“Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See” by Juliann Garey

I chose “Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See” by Juliann Garey because it’s on this year’s American Library Association Notable Books list.

 Briefly, it’s a novel about a man’s descent into mental illness, in this case bipolar disorder, eventually climbing back toward a glimmer of hope for his recovery.

 Greyson Todd narrates all twelve sections, each correlating to an electroshock treatment in a psychiatric ward. He includes flashbacks to his adulthood and childhood, revealing the lingering impact of his father’s mental illness.

 Todd has achieved high success as a studio executive in California when he decides to leave his wife and daughter. It has become more and more difficult to hide the manifestations of his illness. He has ample money, so he travels to various countries, living all kinds of adventures before that money runs out.

 I’ve been reading most of the books on the Notable Books lists for over 20 years, and my bar is now set very high. This one barely measures up. I can’t point to particular faults with it, I simply didn’t feel the pull of strong narrative or compelling characters.

 Even so, it is a potent book group book. Where Garey excels in this story is when revealing the connection between Todd’s behavior and the progress of his illness. In doing so, she asks important questions. What does it mean to hit rock bottom? How do we respond to someone who’s mentally ill, especially when he is violent? How do families re-build? Can mental illness be cured without love? How does trust ever happen?

“The Woman Upstairs”

Working my way through the American Library Association Notable Books list, I picked up “The Woman Upstairs” by Claire Messud.

Its narrator is Nora Eldridge, a third grade teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She introduces this novel, “How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.” Nora intended to be an artist. But that has been set aside. At 42, she is a popular teacher, a dutiful daughter, and a dependable friend. She is “the woman upstairs.” And nobody knows how furious she is.

 She goes on to tell how five years previous her dreams were reawakened by a remarkable family who entered her life. First the son joins her class, then the mother who is an artist invites her to share space, then the father, a visiting professor, becomes special to her. Each of them possesses a personality that matches Nora’s needs–their jigsaw pieces seem to complete her puzzle. But it doesn’t last, and worse, it leads to betrayal.

 Ongoing foreshadowing led me to expect some kind of huge awful explosion. It didn’t happen as I expected, and perhaps that is why this is a strong book. It seems entirely realistic–this earthshaking interior change in Nora, instead of propelling her into a life of art, kindles fury instead. She stokes it because it makes her feel alive.

 Messud has mastered choosing and describing key interactions. Nora is aware of feminist aspects of her situation and  sees herself enduring dates with duty. Her telling leaves plenty of space for the reader to see more than she does.

 The story reads like an extended conversation. It’s tailor made for book groups. I salute Messud for the open ending, a perfect discussion point. I still can’t decide whether it’s hopeless or hopeful. I’ll recommend this to many of my reading friends, and look forward to extending the conversation with them.