The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

Cover illustration for The Goldfinch by Donna Tart Back in August I finished a book. My Amazon history (yes, I know, at some point down the line I’ll find a way to be a better person) tells me I actually bought it the previous November, and I know I started it right away because I was super excited about the whole thing. I loved The Secret History so much I’d buy anything Donna Tartt wrote. Of course, since she writes on average one highly decorated book per decade, so far that’s been real easy.

So why did this book (which I honestly really enjoyed) take me nine months to read and another three to review? Two reasons: primarily, graduate school and a full time job have made me into a vacuous crazy person who only reads historical romances (preferably in a bathtub, with wine) when the day has been too much to ever think about again, and secondly, though I can legitimately claim to have loved this book, I didn’t exactly love the middle 300 or so pages—but more on that later.

The first chapter left me totally amazed, engrossed, enamored. I felt sure sure it must have been excerpted The New Yorker or something and I’d missed it, because that initial chapter could stand alone. I learned later that the extract in fact appeared in the Daily Telegraph, The New Yorker having declared itself too good for this book.

We know from the first line that the narrator’s mother is dead, that she died traumatically. 13-year old Theo, is in trouble at school—for smoking maybe, or some other misdemeanor-—he’ll never know which one exactly. Summoned to the office one rainy day, and, unable to get a cab, Theo and his mother duck into the Met where she shows him a favorite painting, the titular Goldfinch.

The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius 1654

Theo distractedly observes another pair of patrons, a red headed girl his own age, and an old man, her grandfather or uncle. Minutes later he and his mother separate: he, surreptitiously in pursuit of the red headed girl, she to take one last look in the gallery. A museum guard runs past. A bomb explodes.

Theo awakes in the aftermath of the April 10 terror attack on the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a fictitious but entirely plausible event. In the ruble, he finds one other living person: Welty, the old man accompanying the girl. Deaf and disoriented from the blast, the old man gives Theo his ring and the name of his business, and gestures at a painting on the wall—the same painting his mother had taken him to see—the Goldfinch. Then he dies. Panicked and confused, Theo takes the painting and leaves the premises.

The events of this day color the rest of his life. He becomes permanently entangled with Welty, falling desperately and hopelessly in love with his great niece, Pippa, the red headed girl he first admired; finding a mentor and friend in the dead man’s former business partner, Hobie. Most of all, Theo finds himself burdened and oppressed by the possession of a priceless work of art which he can neither safely display, nor sell, nor bear to part with.

In the weeks and months that follow the attack, a grief-stricken, tortured Theo finds a temporary home with the family of a wealthy classmate and friend, Andy Barbour, and begins to pick up the threads of Welty’s life—only to be swept away when his absentee father abruptly swoops down on him and bears him off to Las Vegas.

In the slow, painful period after the death of Theo’s mother, its easy to drift off as a reader. In Las Vegas, its two pages max before sleep takes over. This section is interminable. Theo is marooned in a subprime Las Vegas housing development with his father, a professional but evidently unsuccessful gambler, and his girlfriend, a drug dealing waitress. He has just one friend in the deserted subdivision: Boris, the son of a Russian diplomat. The boys drink, drug and shoplift endlessly. And, that’s more or less it for a good 150 pages. Any abridger can safely skip these chapters. I’m pretty sure they won’t make up a major portion of the movie (Yes, that’s right. It’s been optioned. By the producers of the Hunger Games.) Los Vegas this novel’s Lowood School.

That this part of the book is boring is appropriate enough for a bildungsroman. Junior high and high school are boring. But considering that Tartt will shortly skip over eight years in Theo’s life, I’d argue that we probably didn’t need to stick with him through this bit.

After the sudden death of his father, Theo decides its time to return to New York. So, with a wad of cash, a pocket full of pills, and a lap dog, all stolen from his father’s girlfriend, and with The Goldfinch carefully wrapped in pillowcases and tape, he says goodbye to Boris and boards the bus for New York, arriving on Hobie’s doorstep.

Eight years later, the novel is, once again, its unputdownable. We find Theo living and working with Hobie, now a partner in the business, and using it to systematically cheat the nouveau riche into purchasing faked antiques. The painting remains carefully wrapped in those same old pillowcases in a storage unit. The FBI have been searching for it since the attack, and one questionable individual on the outskirts of the New York antiques market seems to know that Theo has it.

Then one night in the village, Theo stumbles into a bar and unexpectedly encounters his old friend Boris, now a small time criminal whose exact business interests remain unclear. Boris guiltily confesses that he stole the painting back in high school. The thing Theo has so carefully guarded all these years, the thing that has anchored him, that has inspired so much fear and anxiety, is an old text book. Boris sold the work to some minor Eastern European gangsters but, he promises Theo, he will help to recover it. So begins a harrowing, over-the-top, at times farcical effort to recover the painting, culminating in Yuletide violence in Amsterdam and Theo’s unlikely and rather abrupt extrication from all difficulties.

In the aftermath, a reunited Hobie and Theo discuss the painting with something approaching frankness, and Theo learns that the day of the bombing, Welty was in the building because of the Goldfinch; that he had come to the museum specially because he wanted Pippa to see it. It was that one masterwork, its eloquence, the passion it engendered in each disparate individual, that drove them all. Tartt concludes her ironic, over-the-top novel, with somewhat unexpectedly earnest reflections on the nature and value of art and beauty and the reality of fate.

This novel has been called Dickensian (and by the book review of book reviews no less…then by everybody else). In structure and theme, the similarity is undeniable. The Goldfinch is a long book spanning a long period of time; the plot relies on coincidence almost to the point of magic; its told from the perspective of a man looking back on his youth; there are a lot of non-essential, eccentric characters, especially old people with funny names; there’s gambling and a sick girl (two of Dickens’ favorite things); financial striving and class anxiety are major themes; about 30% of it actually seems to take place inside The Old Curiosity Shop. (Okay, so I’m not a Dickens fan—I side with Henry James (an actual good novelist) on this one.) The author herself seems to concur that the work is Dickensian, though maybe not deliberately so.

Theme and structure, though, are only frameworks in this context; vehicles for genre play; a nod and a wink to a convention the author embraces only selectively. The work is modern in its expression of heroism, post-modern in its referential style. It lacks the moral center and dialog of Dickens and exhibits a profoundly different sense of humor. The melodrama is self-conscious rather than earnest. The characters are as far from life as any Dickensian characters ever were, but they are not satiric caricatures as the population of London seems to have been; they are merely deeply flawed, drastically selfish, mostly shallow, and a little strange.

Its is a Faberge egg of a book: delicate, fantastic, esoteric, entirely artificial, a testament to craftsmanship without being exactly beautiful–but by no means light, and impossible to dismiss. That confuses all of us, a confusion further exacerbated by the accolades the work has garnered on one hand, and the extreme criticism it has received on the other hand.

Hot Pink, Adam Levin

Cover illustration for Hot Pink by Adam LevinThis is one of those books I picked up because of the cover. Can I just say I love the faded hipster t-shirt quality of this book design? You could pick this out as McSweeney’s at 200 yards. Cloth bound and embossed, with the weird muted 70s color pallet and Wes Anderson-esque imagery, the total absence of dust jacket (no insight, no explanations), and the thoughtful addition colored front papers (a pricy touch you almost never see any more). You can’t tell from the photo, but the grey background is actually textured with a pattern of raised diamonds. I’m not addicted to print (I’ve been known to read George Elliot on my iphone, for example) but this is the kind of book that just feels great to hold.

So, I was favorably predisposed. Then I flipped it open, read a few lines, and was sold.

I stumbled into this book thinking it was going to be a novel with an eccentric architecture–I guess because I know Adam Levin is also a novelist. It took me, embarrassingly, until well into the second story to recognize it for what it actually is: a straight-up short story collection.

The stories are distinguished by a pervading air of irony, plots filled with unexpected left turns, intensely present characters, clever prose and especially clever dialog. But most of all by their quirkiness–that gently humorous, pardonably over the top, self-conscious eccentricity that is, like the cover, such a part of the McSweeny’s aesthetic. They are for the most part gregarious, engrossing, a pleasure to read. Though violent and occasionally tragic, the stories contain a surprising underlying positivity that I found striking.

Of the 10 stories, I adored three (“Frankenwittgenstein,” “Jane Tell” and “Scientific American”), experienced a strong disinclination for two (“Considering the Bittersweet End of Susan Falls” and “The Extra Mile”), and completely forgot one (“Finch”), only remembering it when skimming the table of contents before writing up this post.

The qualities I find so compelling in these stories are same elements that, in too great a concentration make some of the work unpalatable. In nearly every story, there’s a moment when some side character goes on a page-long rant in what is clearly a go-to voice. Dramatic occurrences send the story skittering off in new directions, leading to conclusions my old writing professor would describe as “not earned.” I loved “Susan Falls” right up until (spoiler alert) the  moment she accepts a cigarette from her cousin and promptly has a seizure and dies–something we all saw coming, but hoped the author wouldn’t actually go through with. Susan’s imaginative lies about the loss of her legs, her analytical consideration of Carla’s ass, the outlandish chapter numbers and titles like some kind of textual synesthesia–I was with him for all that. But the single cigarette death is so after-school-movie-of-the-week, like the girl who smokes but doesn’t inhale one joint and ends up pregnant and addicted to crack living in a car. I get that its deliberate; I just don’t like it. Its too much. Lots of people (Carolyn Kellogg) disagree with me on this point.

The piece that will stay with me longest is undoubtedly “Scientific American,” the story of a nameless young couple plagued by a mysterious oozing crack in their bedroom wall (make all the vaginal allusions you want here…its in the text). Its established early on that they are a little superstitious, a little nervous. The couple suffered a miscarriage in the past; now the wife is pregnant again, and they are both careful how they speak about their expectations.

The oozing crack appears one day without explanation and consistently reappears, Gogel like, despite repainting, and even tearing down and rebuilding the wall. The man descends into a good old fashioned existential madness, until, inexplicably, he decides to mop up a bit of the ooze on a piece of raw bacon and feed it to his much-loved pet dog. The man feels remorseful and guilty about feeding the dog the ooze, but attempts to justify his own behavior as he goes about his day, dog in tow. The dog, apparently poisoned, begins vomiting in the car shortly thereafter, causing an accident.

The man wakes up months later (see what I mean about unexpected left turns?). He and his now very pregnant wife return home, where he ritualistically cleans the oozing crack. Thereafter, the man cleans the crack religiously for the rest of his life–not unlike the natives appeasing the volcano. Its a good life, happy, successful, prosperous. After his death, his wife maintains the crack, and later, their grandchildren.

In the final scene of the story, we go back in time to the christening of the couple’s first child. After the ceremony, the man speaks with their house painter who explains that the crack was caused by shoddy Indonesian paint, purchased by the contractor when their home was nearly complete, so that it was only used on one wall. Other houses in the subdivision had cracks throughout. The builder had intended to use new, quality paint when the wall was rebuilt, but the man had gone ahead and painted himself, using a leftover can of paint from the basement, and no one had wanted to explain the error to him. The man apparently discards this logical explanation, preferring a version of the story in which he did not poison his dog, in which the crack has been successfully placated, in which consistent rules apply.

Tragic misconstruction has always been one of my favorite plot models, and this application with its strong overtones of religious allegory and denial fits closely with what troubles me about Christianity as practiced by certain of my family members. Which is to say, I really appreciated it.

Hot Pink offers such a spectrum of work that it doesn’t entirely make sense as a collection. I was alternately thrilled and disappointed as I read, but my overall sense is that I now need a copy of The Instructions. I’d have got there sooner if people hadn’t kept comparing it to Infinite Jest.

Kissing the Witch, Emma Donoghue

Cover illustration for Kissing the Witch by Emma DonoghueI know from reading Slammerkin and Room that Emma Donoghue possesses great range, a gift for applying research in fiction with a light insistent touch, and an almost incredible capacity for tailoring her narrative style to her characters’ reality–so much so that it can be difficult to recognize her voice from novel to novel. In the short story collection Kissing the Witch, Donoghue waxes lyrical, redressing a series of thirteen well known fairy tales. Though Donoghue dispenses with Once Upon a Time, and relates each tale through the medium of a first person narrator, the stories retain the timeless archetypal unreality appropriate to their genre. The tales are beautifully written, each line specific and evocative.

The stories themselves are cleverly nested, with the secondary character of each story (often but not always the villain or lover) becoming the heroine of the next. The female beast from “The Tale of the Rose” (Beauty and the Beast) was, in her youth, the heroine of “The Tale of the Apple” (Snow White). The step mother from “The Tale of the Apple” was formerly the maid from “The Tale of the Handkerchief” (The Goose Girl), in this telling, the  protagonist of the story. The book ends (or if viewed in chronological terms, begins) with an original story, “The Tale of the Kiss,” concerning the history of Sea Witch from “The Tale of the Voice” (The Little Mermaid).

Strong feminist themes of self reliance and self determinism run throughout the collection, and there is an implicit understanding that stories do not end with successful romantic love. Prince Charming is notably absent. Indeed, with the exception of the affection between the siblings in “The Tale of the Cottage” (Hansel and Gretel), there are no positive relationships with any male characters, including fathers and brothers.

In these fairy tales, women become disillusioned and extricate themselves from troubling situations, occasionally finding salvation, or at least comfort, in relationships with other women. The narrator from “The Tale of the Apple” eventually abandons the dwarfs of her own volition and returns to the castle to confront the queen. The narrator from “The Tale of the Shoe” (Cinderella) loves her fairy godmother, which, if you think about it, really does make more sense. The heroine of “The Tale of the Cottage” saves her brother from the witch and, in a neat reversal of roles, sends him to safety while she remains behind. Because these adaptions tend to eliminate the conclusion of the traditional tale–because the tiny shoe is never tried on, the beast was always beautiful under her mask, the witch does not end up in the oven, the prick of the distaff does not send the princess to sleep, and the girl never truly lost her voice–the stories can fall a little flat, but in general their brevity, stylishness, and the repartee between the tale as written and tale in the reader’s mind is enough to keep the forward momentum.

In these tales as in most of her other work, Donoghue focuses on strong but victimized women, many of them disturbed, perhaps beyond the possibility for recovery. She explores the effects of trauma on the human psyche with compassion, but also a fearless willingness to expose the ugliest sides of her characters, and she offers no happy endings, only, occasionally, peace.

Mauprat, George Sand

Mauprat by George SandI’ve been struggling to come up with something to say about Mauprat that’s not completely obvious for a while now. But here’s the thing: this book is completely obvious. Theres no ambiguity; no “showing, not telling”; nothing obtuse or inconclusive. It’s utterly transparent. The author tells us what happens in definite terms, and then she tells us how to interpret it, and then she tells us how we should feel about it. Sand had a point; a message about feminine value and feminine strength, about the complex relationship between nature and education in the formation of human character, which she wanted to convey to readers, critics, and very probably her soon-to-be ex-husband, loud and clear.

In Mauprat (1837), George Sand relates the life story young Bernard de Mauprat, tracing his progress from a busque and villainous youth, to a respectable and worthy gentleman. The novel adopts elements of many popular genres–its a gothic novel, a romance, a history, an (almost) murder mystery, and at its core, a coming of age story.

Like many novels of the same period and genre, Mauprat employs a nested story structure which lends itself to that uniquely 19th century combination of first person narration and omniscient soap boxing. Sand narrates the tale in the voice of an aged Bernard de Mauprat, relating his life-story to a pair of younger men over the course of two evenings spent before the fire at his home.

Bernard was born the grandson of an infamous noble tyrant and was, after the death of his parents raised by his grandfather and his eight brutal bachelor uncles in their deteriorating castle, Roche-Mauprat. He was brought up to a life of violence, indulgence, and oppression by a group of men who robbed, murdered, fought and drank, seizing what they wanted from the peasantry at will, abused by the old patriarch, and eager to treat anyone weaker than themselves in the same style.

Then, we meet the girl. The uncles bring her back to Roche-Mauprat after one of their marauding trips, having evidently discovered her lost in the woods after becoming separated from a hunting party and tricked her into believing that they would help her home. Of course, she’s beautiful. Somewhat less predictably she’s also their cousin. It seems that a lesser branch of the Mauprat family lives nearby, a cousin of the head of the house, and his daughter. This is the daughter, Edmee. She’s given to Bernard by his uncles, the first woman he’s ever had. Bernard is possessed by an instant passion, but can’t bring himself to rape the girl then hand her over to his uncles. Instead, he extracts an as-it-turns out, unfortunately unspecific promise of love, and the two escape to her home, where her father (his great uncle) receives Bernard joyfully. Safe at home, Edmee explains herself more fully: she’s not going to “give herself to him” immediately as payment for her life (which is what he expects), but she will marry him if he becomes educated. To be clear, Edmee is not asking Bernard to read a few books and learn to add; she’s speaking of a moral, social and philosophical education.

What follows his a seven-year courtship during which Bernard discovers, through painful trial and error, what it means to care for and think about others, to take responsibility, to exercise self control. He travels the world, fights in the American Revolution, make real friends, becomes a whole person. This provides Sand with a wealth of opportunities to discourse on the subjects of love and human nature.

There is, she tells us,

reason to believe that we carry within us from our earliest years the seeds of those virtues and vices which are in time made to bear fruit by the action of our environment.

and yet,

A man cannot change the essence of his nature, but he can guide his divers faculties towards a right path; he can almost succeed in turning his faults to account

Her advice, then, is:

Do not believe in any absolute and inevitable fate; and yet acknowledge, in a measure, that we are moulded by instincts, our faculties, the impressions of our infancy, the surroundings of our earliest childhood–in short, by all that outside world which has presided over the development of our soul. Admit that we are not always absolutely free to choose between good and evil, if you would be indulgent towards the guilty…

Bernard credits Edmee and his love for her with the evolution of his character, “from a wolf into a man.” She is not, however, a female pygmalion. Sand is very clear about this. Edmee, we are told, loved Bernard from the instant they met. She would not degrade herself by surrendering to him while he was so unworthy, or endanger herself by placing her person and property in his care while he was so incompetent–but she always loved him. She didn’t carve a statue and then fall in love with it; she fell in love with the block of marble and but refused to compromise her own principles or well being, until eventually it carved itself.

In this way, Sand gives us a three dimensional heroine; a woman who is both passionate and sane (is there anything more rare in gothic fiction?); a woman who is thoughtful and intelligent, but still gets angry; a woman of principal and integrity, who has weaknesses, but doesn’t give in to them.

Channeling her own voice through her characters, Sand asserts,

Men imagine that a woman can have no separate existence of her own, and that she must always be wrapped up in them; and yet the only woman they love deeply is she whose character seems to raise her above the weakness and indolence of her sex…

A spirit of independence, the conception of virtue, a love of duty, all these privileges of lofty souls are essential…in the woman who is to be one’s companion through life; and the more your mistress gives proof of strength and patience, the more you cherish her, in spite of what you may have to suffer.

Sand executes a neat trick in writing this novel from Bernard’s perspective, appropriating the authoritative voice of an elderly wealthy landed nobleman and using it to endorse a controversial message of gender and class equality. This approach also has a tempering effect on the feminist novel format. This is no hopeless, soul sucking Kate Chopin sob-fest. There’s no lonesome Margaret Fuller austerity. No one goes swimming with a pocket full of rocks. The men in this book are universally (with the exception of the Mauprat uncles and few other stray villains) estimable, offered up as examples of the solution, not causes of the problem.

Though not frequently read today, Mauprat has an important role in the literary discusion of education. In it, Sand replies to Rousseau’s Emile (1762) and borrows from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The novel exudes an air of La Belle et Bete (1740). Its easy to  imagine Charlotte Bronte drawing upon Mauprat for Jane Eyre (1847).

Man is born with more or less of passions, with more or less power to satisfy them, with more or less capacity for turning them to a good or bad account in society. But education can and must find a remedy for everything.

(quotes are from the free Kindle version)

Olive Kittridge, Elizabeth Strout

Cover illustration for Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth StroutOlive Kitteridge is easily the most depressing book I’ve read in years…maybe ever. This is the kind of book that sucks your soul away. The volume consists of 13 internlinking vignettes about the residents of a small Maine town, with the title character, Olive Kittridge, appearing in each. In some of sections, Olive is the star of her own story, in others she merely wanders, Where’s Waldo like, through the background.

This is no quaint charmer, however. Olive Kittridge is a book about resignation, disappointment, and loss, leavened with the lightest dusting of dark humor. These are stories of violence, illness, and divorce. There are robberies at gun point, near drownings, hunting accidents, strokes. Multiple characters have lost parents to suicide. A young girl starves herself to death, dying of a heart attack, a symptom of her chronic anorexia. The parents of a murderer become recluses, leaving the house only at night for twenty years. A lonely barroom piano player leaves her married lover. A wife discovers her spouse and childhood sweetheart’s infidelity on the day of his funeral.

More than the dark events, however, what makes this work so incredibly difficult is the overwhelming sense of helpless inertia. Strout shows us a sad, quiet town plagued by senseless, insurmountable pain. There’s no adventure here, and little hope. Only a grim decline, prejudice, gossip, resistance to change, inescapable circumstance, everything that’s worst about small town life, condensed into 250 pages.

Olive herself is eminently sympathetic without being exactly likable. A middle school math teacher, smarter than she needs to be, with a caustic edge capable of delivering dry humor or bitter reproof. Enormously judgmental, sporadically capable of profound intuitive empathy, insatiably hungry for a level of meaningful human interaction she can never attain.

All this isn’t to say Olive Kittridge is a bad book, necessarily. Its intelligent and nuanced, with moments of real beauty. It won a Pulitzer for a reason, after all. Its just very difficult. More difficult, for me, than stereotypically difficult novels, like 1984, The Road or the Bell Jar, because of its sickening, solid realism, untempered by the interest inherent in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, authoritarian dystopian government, or elegant madness. These are real people in circumstances not outside the realm of possibility for any of us.

Not dead, just busy…

Cover illustration for Fair Game by Patricia Briggs…too busy, for many months, to actually finish any non-school book. But not too busy to dork out at the first opportunity. Now I’m back, and, predictably, back with something trashy. Fair Game, the latest installment of Patricia Briggs’ off-shoot series, Alpha and Omega, falls somewhat short of the author’s usual standard–the funny, sexy fantasy for which she is so deservedly known–but it’s still more cleverly orchestrated and better written than the vast majority of the competition, and the ending promises a new and exciting future for the series.

In this installment, werewolves Anna and Charles find themselves partnering with the FBI (and a made-up paranormal governmental agency) to track a serial killer who has been targeting their kind. Their mission and their relationship are hampered by the fact that Charles is secretly haunted by ghosts–but not to worry–they can be dispelled via cell phone. Anna, meanwhile, is concerned because she and Charles haven’t had sex lately. Fortunately, midway through the novel, the couple go ahead and fuck in the woods in front of the FBI and a bunch of other werewolves, so that gets resolved, too. Happy endings all around. And, you know, they catch the killer and all.

Of course, there comes an inevitable moment when Charles has to save Anna. All the passion of their relationship is wound up with the desperate threat of loss. It’s sort of hilarious watching as Briggs tries to balance her deep-seated BDSM fantasies about domination and possessiveness with feminism. It’s not that these things are inherently incompatible. Rather, the author’s own internal tension is palpable in the work. Anna, like all Briggs’ female leads, walks a thin line between resilience and strength, luck and wit; her greatest asset is the fact that she is beloved of someone far more dangerous and far more deeply damaged than herself. It seems with each successive book some of the artifice and some of the craft is stripped away, and readers are brought closer and closer to whatever it is that lies at the core of all Briggs’ stories–perhaps the author herself, perhaps merely a question she asks. Or maybe I’ve just read too many of these things.

Weirdly, this book is packed (no pun intended) with references to popular SciFi–something I don’t recall from previous installments. The characters banter about zombies and Tolkien. It’s all very meta. Perhaps my favorite moment comes when a drunk cop rudely asks Anna whether she and Charles have sex as animals, and what its like. Anna, of course, doesn’t confirm or deny. I can only suppose people must have asked the author about it at comic-con or something, and she decided to taunt us.

Like River Marked before it, this is very much a series-building book, occupied more with getting the characters from one place to another than with telling us anymore about them–but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender

Cover illustration for The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee BenderAs gifted a short story writer as Aimee Bender is, the long form is not her strong suit. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is ploddingly, draggingly, achingly slow–especially considering that the events of the story are actually pretty fantastical.

The narrator, Rose Edelstein, is the eager younger sibling in an ordinary middle class family of four living in Los Angeles–reserved lawyer father, crafty hippie mother, still searching for her place in life, brilliant older brother, cut off from his high school peers and, increasingly, from the world at large. But at the age of nine, Rose begins to experience a strange new phenomenon: when she eats, she can taste the emotions and often even discern the secrets of the person who prepared it. Alienated by her ability, Rose grows up avoiding decisions, depth, relationships. Her brother Joseph, meanwhile, becomes increasingly antisocial, until finally he simply disappears, a development that leaves the family bereft. Rose cannot bring herself to follow a traditional path–leaving home, attending college–but in time she finds some solace in cooking her own food and working in a restaurant and discovers the secret behind her strange ability and her brother’s disappearance.

I see The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake as an inverted Like Water for Chocolate set in a Southern California suburban wasteland, minus all the drama and most of the sex (wasn’t there also a Sarah Michelle Geller movie with this exact same premise?). I don’t want to imply that this book wasn’t good–it was well written, intelligently crafted–but also extremely slow. The plot is so simple in its essentials that it cannot sustain a whole novel. As a short story, it would have been brilliant. As it is, it comes up lacking.

This is exacerbated by a certainly flatness about the main character and narrator, Rose. In the early chapters, nine-year-old Rose is effectively and endearingly animated by childish confidences and concerns, but as she matures the burden of her gift seems to take over her whole personality. Her character is stripped away, leaving a passive observer of a first person narrator, inert and ill-defined. This is a deliberate choice on Bender’s part, and a truth Rose herself discovers when sampling her own food, “I was left with two particularly disturbing first impressions. One was the sickly-sweet nostalgia, in the taste of a tantrum, the longing for an earlier, sweeter time with an aftertaste like cancer-casing sugar substitution. And the second was that factory.” (241) Later, when the taste of the factory continues to show up in her cooking, she concludes, “it must’ve come from the cook.” (242) She has been so dominated by her ability that her emotions have become mechanical, her internal life repressed out of a desire for self-preservation. This is a sensible choice for the character, but a 300 page novel in which we know as much about the main character at the end as at the beginning doesn’t exactly make for a page turner.

The other characters are almost equally elusive. Kind, vague father, smart and efficient, and yet haunted in someway; mother, lost in her own life, waiting for signs and portents, missing her lost son; and George, her brother’s charming best friend and her own lifelong crush, perpetually cheerful, insightful, good, but always receding–college, grad school, married, gone. It’s a story of profound and unavoidable loss–of innocence, of loved ones, of human connection, of hopes for the future. As the title promised, a truly depressing novel.

The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter

Cover image for The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

On the back of The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, an endorsement from Jonathan Lethem compares Aimee Bender to Angela Carter. I had never heard of her, but I loved Bender’s debut collection and I’ve been known to enjoy a Lethem novel or two, so I promptly put The Bloody Chamber on hold at the library. A month or two later, it came.

First of all, I just have to say, this work has nothing in common with Aimee Bender’s aside from a faint leaning toward the fantastical. While Bender’s prose is spare and modern with little ironic flourishes, Carter’s is rich and Baroque. Complex, mythic, layered. Her stories have the heavy overtones of sex and magic inherent in the traditional fairy tale, while Bender’s surreal tales dryly juxtapose elements of the fantastic with the mundane. These dense, lyrical stories are far more comparable to the work of Francesca Lia Block than that of Aimee Bender. However, while the Lethem’s comment proved patently untrue (maybe it allies more closely with her novels? or was recommended by a publicist?), I did greatly enjoy Carter’s collection.

The Bloody Chamber includes ten stories based, with varying degrees of fidelity, on popular fairy tales–Blue Beard (the title story), two takes on Beauty and the Beast, and three versions of Little Red Riding Hood, as well as Puss in Boots, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and, somewhat less well known in the United States, the Erlking. The stories are structurally simple and stylistically lush, dense with repeated images of caged birds, flowers, blood, and beasts.

The tales are mostly set in the years leading up to World War I, in a Europe in which horse-drawn carriages and automobiles mingle on the roads and the contradictory systems of magic and logic agitate on one another’s boarders. The setting is more driven by atmosphere than any afinity for or loyalty to the past. Carter has created a neo-gothic world of secluded mansions and forests primaeval, a close cousin to Du Maurier’s Cornwall. In keeping with the collection’s 1979 publication date, however, the stories have a distinctly second wave feminist sensibility and explore issues of female sexuality and power, examining the limitations and restraints of femininity and offering surprising glimpses of strength and transcendence.

Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney

Cover illustration for Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay McInerneyBright Lights, Big City is, for me, both brutally timely and eerily nostalgic. Nostalgic partly because of it’s old school Vintage cover art, it’s beat up laminated library binding and the check out slip dating from March of 1989, but also because of it’s angsty-cum-tragic tone, the narrator’s early youthful bitterness. It is, for me, all high school. Holding it in my hands, that particular peeling library binding feel, those particular manila colored pages–watermarked, of course–reminds me of being 14, sitting on the hallway carpet in front of the wall heater, reading in the hours between school and dinner, dishes and bed. Timely, because, well–we all know what Bright Lights, Big City is about, right? Failure on all fronts: professional, romantic, artistic, financial.

The novel opens at a Manhattan night club around 2:00 am, where the narrator and his friend, the unstoppable hedonist Tad Allagash, are imbibing and attempting to either score some coke or separate one of the weaker women from the herd. Or both. We will come back to this scene a few different times.

Our hero is in the midst of a brief spiraling downfall punctuated by parties, bars, and mountains of Peruvian flake. On the verge of loosing his job as an entry-level fact checker at a prestigious magazine. In the aftermath of his wife’s desertion. In the realization that, at 24 he has failed to achieve the early promise he felt on his arrival in the city at 22.

Bright Lights, Big City Movie PosterFrom the description so far, this novel may seem to exhibit all the markings of a Bret Easton Ellis nihilism fest, but I don’t mean to give that impression. McInerney’s style and voice is anything but. His work is full of wit and humor. Dry for the most part, but at times almost slapstick, he offers a gently mocking portrait of fading glory of the New York literati, the 1980s nightlife, and a few boyish pranks. It also contains moments of startling honesty and clarity, in which a character grounded in escapism suddenly cuts through the bullshit and delivers an insight for which he seems thoroughly unprepared.

My only real gripe with this book (other than the uncomfortable feeling of resonance) is the ending, which, without offering too big a spoiler, adheres too closely to trends in literary fiction at the time and concludes with an abrupt hopeful up-note which, this reader felt, was not quite justified.

Kicking off the Holiday Season with Patricia Briggs and Deanna Raybourn

Cover illustration for Wolfsbane by Patricia BriggsI started off November with the incredibly fabulous corn-ball extravaganza, Wolfsbane, by Patricia Briggs, the long unpublished squeal to the author’s 1993 flop, Masques (which I, incidentally, adore).

The novel opens with the main character, Aralorn, heading home to her family estate to attend her father’s funeral. Her morose but hot lover, Wolf, joins her at the family castle, and the two soon discover that her father is not in fact dead, but under the influence of a powerful spell that will kill him before long. The book follows Aralorn and Wolf and a small host of friends and family as they work to discover who is responsible for the attack and undo the spell. Their continued romance forms the major subplot of the book, occasionally superseding the mystery, so that it’s almost a toss up whether this is a fantasy-mystery novel with some elements of romance, or a romance novel with some elements of fantasy and mystery. So obviously that was enormously satisfying. (Did I mention my boyfriend has been out of town?)

Deanna Raybourn Julia GreyI followed that one up with the Lady Julia Grey Bundle for Kindle, a compendium of three slightly tongue-in-cheek Gothic mystery romances from Deanna Raybourn (no I don’t think it’s her real name either). Widowed in the first line of the first book, Lady Julia Grey proceeds to solve gruesome murders, ruminate on the depravity of human kind, fight with her prodigious family, and make out with brooding but hot private inquiry agent Nicholas Brisbane. The mysteries pretty much weren’t, but the whole experience was completely enjoyable.

Cover illustration for Dark Road to Darjeeling by Deanna RaybournI’m now about 85% done with the newly released fourth book in the series, The Dark Road to Darjeeling, another winner. I’m guessing selling #4 at full price is the reason they bundled 1-3–and it worked, because I totally bought it. I don’t want to give away the mystery (not that the author hasn’t already done so) but in this one, there is an all black man-eating tiger.

I think a good rule of thumb is this: if the word “bane” appears in either the book title or any character name, the book is going to be

a) really fun, and
b) really embarrassing

When I’m done, I swear I’ll finish Super Sad True Love Story.