Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Nothing is more satisfying to a reader than a big, thick book with a suspenseful plot and a multitude of interesting characters, all of whom come alive on the page. It's an added plus when the dialogue is natural and sounds distinctive for each character, and when the setting is so clearly described that a reader can visualize and feel the surroundings. Dickens could come up with such novels, and so, it turns out, can Donna Tartt.

The story begins in Amsterdam, with 27-year-old Theo Decker, terrified and ill, hiding out in a hotel room after an unnamed violent event. Through his narration, we are taken back to the thirteen-year-old Theo, who survives the terrorist bombing of an art museum which takes the life of his mother. Clearly suffering from survivor's guilt and PTSD, young Theo is taken in by the wealthy family of a friend, his alcoholic father having recently departed for parts unknown. We follow Theo from his life in New York as a private school student to the desolate outskirts of Las Vegas when his father reappears. Then it's back to New York as a partner in an antique business, before Amsterdam and a reluctant involvement with the criminal underworld. Binding the plot together from start to finish is a small painting, The Goldfinch, the reason Theo and his mother visited the museum.

Tartt is particularly successful in the depictions of the many characters, through both indirect personal descriptions and accounts of their actions and an abundance of distinctive dialogue. The alcohol and gambling addicted father, the antique restorer Hobie who becomes a father figure, the amoral Russian boy Boris who befriends Theo in Las Vegas--all seem so real I can see and hear them in my mind.

I have never been to New York. I have never been to Las Vegas. I have never been to Amsterdam. But I feel that I know them, through Donna Tartt, just as I know Victorian England, through Charles Dickens.

This seems like an old-fashioned novel in many respects, in that it tells an extended story in detail. That seems to be rather out of fashion these days. But it is a modern novel in other respects, in that it addresses both current and universal human predicaments. The realistic ending is not "happily ever after," but then whose life ever is?

Onward through the fog.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

A Deadly Shade of Gold by John D. MacDonald

I finished reading this detective novel five or six days ago, and I had to look back over it before I could review it because I could scarcely remember the plot, much less the details. That's how less-than-memorable it is.

It all begins when Sam, one of Travis McGee's old friends, comes back to town after a three-year absence, hoping to reunite with his abandoned fiance', Nora, who is also Trav's friend. He brings along a small and ancient solid gold statue (supposedly one of 27) which he says he plans to sell. Always a romantic at heart, Travis wants to help reunite the two, so he picks up the abandoned love to take her back to the friend's motel room. There they find the man murdered in a brutal and bloody fashion. And the statue is missing.

Thus begins an especially blood-soaked adventure that takes Travis and Nora to a remote village in Mexico as they attempt to find Sam's killer and recover the gold statues. Eventually, Travis ends up alone in Los Angeles, where he finally unravels the whole twisted mystery of who killed who and why and how and so on. Along the way he is severely wounded once and bedded four times by different sexy women. He even falls in love with one of them. He also recovers the gold statues, but ends up alone and gives most of the profits from the statues away, like the good guy he is.

I think the Travis McGee mystery series must be male fantasy novels, with the reader picturing himself in the place of the hero. (After all, women enjoy romance novels that allow them to picture themselves in an idealistic way.) Trav is big and rugged and can handle himself in any fight. He can kill a Doberman with his bare hands. He is smart and has sophisticated tastes. He is an independent loner who refuses to be tied down to a boring 9 to 5 job. He lives on a houseboat. Most of all, he attracts women like honey attracts flies. Every woman he meets comes on to him, but he is picky about the ones he accepts. He is such a great lover that he can heal grief and all manner of other feminine maladies through his sensitive and compassionate lovemaking. What guy wouldn't want to be him?

This is #5 in the series; it is not as good as #1, but much better than #2, #3, and #4. I think fans of this genre would really like it, but I see that it is not the genre for me.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Going After Cacciato by Tim O'Brien

Most books have negative aspects and positive aspects, and when the positives outweigh the negatives, I consider it a good book. When the positives far outweigh the negatives, I consider it a great book. When I can spot no negatives, which is rare, I consider it a perfect book. This is one of those.

It's the war experience of Private Paul Berlin in Vietnam, both actual happenings and his imaginings about an escape from the war as he and his platoon go after Cacciato, a childlike soldier who deserts the fighting with the goal of walking to Paris. Real and unreal flow around and through each other into a surrealistic mix, with the truths about war coming from both.

I find it to be much harder to write a glowing review for a book than to write a mixed review or a negative review, because it is far easier to spot what's wrong than to pinpoint what's right. There's an ineffable quality to a perfect book, because everything comes together--the subject, the style, the structure, the rhythm, the language, the dialogue, the truths, both spoken and implied. The whole becomes greater than the parts.

So this is a short review, because I cannot tell you exactly what makes this book perfect. It just is. It won the National Book Award in 1979, and O'Brien's later novel The Things They Carried is almost as good.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

It is a tribute to Ann Patchett's charming style and story telling abilities that this book is highly readable despite having characters behaving in illogical ways and enough plot holes to sink most novels. While I was reading it I enjoyed the book very much, but when I finished it I was annoyed at the author for manipulating me and irritated at myself for being carried along on what turned out to be a pointless and fallacious journey.

Dr. Marina Singh, a research scientist for a pharmaceutical company, is asked by her boss (and lover) to go to the Brazilian jungle to find out the status of a research project on fertility financed by the company and to learn more about the circumstances of the death of one of her colleagues who had been sent previously. To complicate matters, the leader of the jungle team is an intimidating former teacher of Marina's who was responsible, in part, for her decision to leave obstetrics in favor of research.

Marina's eventual journey into the jungle initiates the most riveting part of the book, as she confronts a frightening alien landscape. She gradually learns that female fertility is not the only focus of the research, that her colleague's death might not have occurred exactly as reported, that she is more competent than she had believed, that she can fight and defeat a giant anaconda, and that she craves the bark of a certain tree. Really.

It becomes apparent that Marina's journey is somewhat symbolic of a journey of self discovery and self realization, but for the reader the trip becomes secondary to the realization that the background does not make that much sense.

(SPOILERS INCLUDED HERE.) Here's a brief summary of some of the major suspicious plot turns:

*The jungle scientists have been with the Amazonian tribe for five years, and the professor who leads them has been there, off-and-on, for more than twenty years, and yet not one can speak the language of the tribe. And yet they have persuaded the women to give frequent blood samples and cervical swabs. How likely is that?

*The professor submits no reports and refuses to have a phone and nobody back at the pharmaceutical company knows exactly where she is, and yet the company continues to finance her and she has unlimited charge accounts back in the nearest Brazilian city. For five years. How likely is that?

*Although she has been a teacher in the fields of obstetrics and gynecology, the professor evidently does not realize that her 73-year-old body is incapable of carrying a baby to term, even if she can become pregnant. How likely is that?

*And that's not a complete list.

Other complaints:

*The native Indian tribe is treated dismissively, as almost childlike in comparison to the researchers. The women apparently spend most of their time grooming each other and going every five days to chew the bark off of specific trees (giving them life-long fertility). No mention is made of how the bodies of elderly natives handle the gestation of babies. As a side effect, none of the women contract malaria. The men do, and they don't chew the bark. Are they so childlike that they don't ever realize the connection?

*Marina forms a connection with a deaf mute native child, and sleeps curled up with him in a small bed. The only problem for the reader is that the boy is identified as being 12 years old. Does an educated woman not realize that even a pre-pubescent boy should not be sleeping curled up with a grown woman? Shouldn't Ann Patchett have realized that?

Suffice it to say, that even though I found this book enjoyable, I was extremely disappointed when I finished it; especially so so since Patchett's Bel Canto was completely enchanting for me.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

This is one of those books that comes with a "but," as in, "It's very good, but...." In this case the "but" is the length--it seems to be a 500-page book stretched to almost 900 pages. Its original publication was in 19 monthly installments, and I wonder how much more tightly constructed it might have been if it had been written for all-at-once publication. I think it would have been much better.

As is typical of Dickens, the novel carries several major plot lines and many subplots, and they almost miraculously come together at the end, like pieces of a puzzle. The central story concerns Little Dorrit, the daughter of a prisoner in a debtor's prison, and Arthur Clennam, the son of a family which appears to harbor a guilty secret. Their story is so intricate, with so many twists and turns, that even to outline the central plot would be a lengthy process. So I will just mention some of the many positive aspects of the novel which make it, in my opinion, one of Dickens' better ones.

*The title character, Amy Dorrit, is extremely sympathetic, even though she often seems too good to be true. However, since I have personally known someone who seemed to be just this self sacrificing and "good," I could believe in her. Of course, in today's world she would be recognized as a world-class "enabler," because she helps her loved ones persist in their selfish ways, never offering a word of complaint.

*You know you are in the hands of an author who is a master of characterization when you actually become angry at fictional people and wish you could give them a good talking to or even a good slap in the face. I frequently felt this impulse.

*Dickens, again as typical, has a rant he wants to vent against the abuses of the society of his time. In this novel, it's the "Circumlocution" Office, as he calls it, a part of the government bureaucracy which seems intent on seeing that nothing really ever gets done, just passed from one section to another, with formidable piles of forms and red tape along the way, with incompetents at the top who have their posts because they "know somebody." I don't know how accurate this was for England in 1867, but it could be a satire on big government in the USA in 2013.

*In another "ripped from today's headlines" plot development, a universally-celebrated financial genius manages to hoodwink crowds of investors into what sounds much like a Ponzi scheme. Of course, it all falls apart in the end, with financial ruin for many.

*Dickens' villains are most often slight caricatures, and this one is no exception, but he is very memorable. He is frequently described in this way: "...his nose came down over his moustache and his moustache went up under his nose, in an ominous and ugly smile." He also always wears a long cape. Remind you of anyone? You probably have to be of a certain age, but I am certain that the creators of Snidely Whiplash for the 1960s' Rocky and Bullwinkle Show must have had this villain in mind.

The only negative I perceive, other than the excessive length, is the pacing, which seems much too leisurely for most of the novel before speeding up drastically toward the end to bring matters to closure. Consequently, perhaps, the ending seems somewhat contrived.

This Dickens novel is darker and has fewer comic elements than many of his books, but it is also more believable than most. It is well worth your time, if you have that much time.