And, I feel like an idiot…

…for my initial failure to connect Fun Home with every feminist’s favorite media analysis criteria, the Bechdel Test, with Allison Bechdel the cartoonist. I guess I was thinking of it along the lines of the Turing Test for artificial intelligence, presuming it to be rooted deep in the murky academic writings of the second wave (although I guess we could makes a case for a 1985 issue of Dykes to Watch Out For…)

Fun Home, Alison Bechdel

Cover illustration for Fun Home by Alison BechdelI started Fun Home after attending yet another Radar Reading Series event where it was repeatedly held up as the pinnacle of what graphic novels can achieve (brilliant, soul-eating, MacArthur Genius earning, Tony Award winning Broadway musical inspiring, and so forth).

Lucky me, it came into the library just before young Brian Grasso’s inexplicably well publicized protests to the effect that images of naked lesbians are against his religion.

I don’t feel particularly compelled to pick this 18 year old apart, trusting that he’ll do enough of that himself once he gains a little perspective on one or more of the following: life, art, picking one’s battles. That said, his Washington Post op-ed is fairly amusing if read in the popper spirit (“even Freud, Marx or Darwin”….my you are open minded!) NB: Seriously, I hope that its impossible to graduate from accredited university without reading at least some Freud, Marx or Darwin–especially somewhere with that much ivy.

This isn’t exactly the first time Bechdel’s opus has come under fire. The same thing happened last year at the University of Southern Carolina, and from time to time various public libraries have been petitioned to take it off their shelves. Still, I feel very timely and fortuitous reading it just now. Everyone loves a banned book, or barring that, a moderately controversial one. Feeling rather guilty that my copy is overdue from the public library, as I’m sure the wait list is exploding.

Not that it wasn’t already. The 2006 graphic memoir has enjoyed enormous success overall (see above MacArthur Genius and Tony Award winning musical) earning a place among great literary memoirs like Liar’s Club and This Boy’s Life.

Illustration for Fun Home, by Alison BechdelBechdel describes her childhood in the family funeral home (the titular “Fun Home”) managed by her father, juxtaposing her growing self awareness through childhood and the process of coming out to her family at the age of 19 with her father’s life as a closeted gay man in a straight marriage in rural Pennsylvania. The work opens with and continually circles back to the death and probable suicide of the author’s father weeks after her own coming out, the end of his life of secrecy at the beginning of her adulthood in the open, the parallels and opposites in their lives a new variation on the Ouroboros themes of parent and child. That moment both typifies and is the underlying point of the work.

The work operates on two levels–the childish interpretation of events, replete with misunderstandings, deliberate obfuscations, and missed details, and the adult’s more informed assessment, consciously aiming for transparency. What was her father’s relationship with the family’s teenaged babysitter? Was that court case really just about giving a 17-year-old a beer, or was Bechdel’s father suspected of something more serious?

Unusually for such a well regard work, Fun Home does not demand much from readers. The author has given us the truths she expects us to know, the hard work of interpretation done for us, clearly articulated in mixed media, each point driven perfectly home, more like a play than a novel.

Illustration from Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel
Bruce Bechdel leading his English class.

Except, perhaps, that the work is dense with eerily appropriate literary references drawn from the family’s reading material. The Bechdel’s was a household of artists, the mother an actress and musician, the father an English teacher and antique enthusiast, books and letters the vehicles through which the author and her father communicated best. The personal lives and works of Proust, Salinger, Colette, Wilde, and others run through the memoir like additional characters.

I was particularly struck with the role of place, the fatalism of living in the Alleghanys. The circumscribe existence, the isolation, and yet the fairy tale parallel to Kenneth Grahame’s Oxford. The fun home itself, lovingly restored by Bechdel’s antique enthusiast father over the course of her childhood, ostentatious and baroque, the Victorian trappings a strange but pleasing contrast to the family’s 1970 jeans and t-shits, a variation on an aesthetic faintly familiar from television (Six Feet Under, The Munsters).

Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, Fun Home retains Bechdel’s comic style, filled with humorous asides and flashes of irony, making the sometimes oppressive subject matter more palatable.  I’ve already put Are You My Mother on hold…

Serena, Ron Rash

Cover art for Serena by Ron RashIts difficult to say anything about Ron Rash’s Serena that the novel itself doesn’t convey more clearly, possibly even more quickly. Possibly its difficult to summarize in part because it is such a simple story. A Depression-era timber baron, George Pemberton, and his fierce, beautiful new bride, the titular Serena, push to finish clear-cutting their land in the Great Smoky Mountains before the newly formed National Park’s eminent domain forces them to sell. The ruthless couple will stop at nothing to secure control of their fortunes or revenge themselves on their enemies. Like Julius Cesar played in World War II costume (or MacBeth—ahem—recast in 1930s North Carolina) Serena is a familiar tale against a novel background.

The story opens as the new couple’s train pulls into the station in Waynesville, North Carolina. Pemberton is bringing his wife home for the first time after several months in Boston. Rachel, one of the timber camp mess staff, awaits the train, visibly pregnant, her infuriated father beside her. With his wife’s encouragement and support Pemberton kills the other man in a brief, brutal fight on the station platform using the knife that was Serena’s wedding gift to him. The incident defines the three central characters and establishes a pattern that will play out again and again throughout the work, the stakes rising as Serena assumes an increasingly active role. The pervasive violence and fear slowly degrade Pemberton’s personality, driving him to alcoholism and subterfuge, demonstrating to Serena that he may not be the mate she deserves after all.

The novelist Ron Rash is also a poet, so its unsurprising that the complexity of his novel comes from the layered symbolism and spiraling foreshadowing, rather than from the plot. Like a good poet, Rash doesn’t throw words away. Every line builds toward the conclusion until it feels inevitable, prophetic. Every thread is woven back in and neatly tied off.

Serena is dense with images of grandeur and destruction. Serena supervises cutting crews from the back of an enormous white horse, carrying an eagle trained to hunt snakes. Pemberton and his partners slaughter deer by the dozen on their hunting excursions. Rattlesnakes haunt the camp. The land is destroyed. Buildings burn. Serena herself suffers a harrowing late-term miscarriage. Workers are killed grotesquely, bitten by snakes and spiders, struck by misplaced ax blades, slipping between the logs in the millpond to drown trapped beneath. They die in such numbers that when the business prepares to relocate to a new camp, the graveyard is the first thing they build. And of course, there are all the people the Pembertons murder.

Serena is a force, exerting her power over nature, disturbing the balance, a point driven home repeatedly throughout the work, as when the workers discuss the rat problem in camp (“The thing to kill them is snakes…but that eagle done upset what the Orientals call the yen and the yang”), or when Serena expresses her pride in the destruction wrought on Nolan Mountain, telling one rich couple, “leaving something as it is leaves no mark at all” (p. 241), and insisting on having her photograph taken before the wasteland of stumps.

The novel is similarly highly structured, divided into five parts, the chapters focusing on the central couple periodically interspersed with commentary from one of the timber crews, with slightly longer segments following Rachel and her baby, Pemberton’s illegitimate son. The film copy includes an interview with Rash, reprinted from the journal Grist, in which he explains that modeled his novel on Marlowe, envisioning it as a five act Elizabethan play, punctuated by a chorus of rustics, and that both Serena and the elderly Mrs. Galloway speak in “lose iambic pentameter.”

With its striking dramatic imagery and growing sense of foreboding its easy to see why the novel was selected for a film adaptation–though the critics don’t seem to have appreciated the results very much. I think I’ll steer clear.

The Keep, Jennifer Egan

Cover illustration for The Keep by Jennifer EganI read The Keep one and a half times: the first half, on a beech in Thailand, and a second complete time, on the commuter train, or while lying on the bed wearing gym clothes in lieu of actually going to the gym. Its a short novel, easily tackled over the course of a day or two, but broken into discrete sections in such a way that putting it down and letting it rest feels natural.

The Keep, by Jennifer Egan, is a clever, weird, book full of the kind of humor that comes from the unexpected and the out-of-context, and studded with odd, surprisingly genuine moments of real feeling.

The story opens at 2:00 am with Danny, a New York hipster approaching 40, marooned in “some German-sounding town that didn’t seem to be in Germany” (p. 4) looking up at the medieval castle that his semi-estranged millionaire cousin Howie has recently purchased.

In a story made of up strange contradictions and juxtapositions, this is the first, and most pervading: image-obsessed, technology addicted, undignified modernity, against a background of atmospheric decaying gothic grandeur–like an episode of Scooby Doo where Shaggy is a middle-aged goth boy with a satellite dish in tow.

The first chapter introduces us to Danny and his cousin, their childhood friendship, and the familiar story of the decline of that friendship in their early teens, as Howie becomes increasingly and painfully nerdy, while Danny grows into a popular soccer star, anxious for approval. Danny sees Howie for the last time when, at a family picnic, he and an older cousin play a cruel trick on Howie that results in his being lost for days in a series of underground caverns. The guilt and shame Egan conjures in this recollection is startling–its incredibly evocative and relatable for such an over-the-top sequence of events.

Now, twenty years later, Danny has lost his latest restaurant job and fallen afoul of the mafia. Basically, he needs to get out of town for a while. Conveniently, a rich, successful Howie offers him a one-way plane ticket and a job helping him to help convert a medieval castle into a hotel.

Chapter 1 also introduces a variation on another trope of classic gothic fiction, the nested tale.  The narrator of Danny’s story, Ray, is present from the very beginning, but breaks in unambiguously for the first time on page 12 to critique his own work:

“He was heading into memory number two, I might as well tell you that straight up, because how am I supposed to get him in and out of all these memories in a smooth way so nobody notices all the coming and going I don’t know.”

Ray, we learn is a student in a prison creative writing class led by Holly, a newish teacher and the object of his erstwhile desire. Danny’s story is his contribution. Her voice will provide a final coda to the novel, like Nelly in Wuthering Heights or Captain Walton in Frankenstein.

Like Egan’s more recent work, The Keep is meticulously structured, full of echoes and bread crumbs, everything neatly tied up, everything connected. The last line harkens back to Chapter 3, when Howie’s wife describes her vision for the finished hotel. I remember thinking that piece of the story was a little off in my first reading–a little too tangential, just slightly out of character for a woman who otherwise barely speaks. But there’s always a reason.

The author calls readers’ attention to the mediated nature of the tale early and often, complicating what is otherwise a simple story with questions of perspective and reality. Is Danny the one obsessed with power–or is that Ray? Is Howie out to revenge himself on Danny, or is that pure paranoia?

The machinery of the story is so evident, the plot so outlandish, the physics of the world the characters inhabit so questionable–yet, like the gothic fiction it takes as a model, The Keep is compelling and, on emotional level, believable.

Evil-free internet shopping (or how to read books on an iphone without patronizing Amazon)

My many devoted readers will know about my obsession with Lorrie Moore.

This has been such a busy year that I completely missed the fact that she has a new short story collection until I sat down one Sunday in November to review the PW Best Books of 2014 list and saw it there: a new short story collection, Bark.

My first instinct was to go straight to Amazon and get it immediately–and then I thought, well, okay, this is a book I can by at any bookstore in America. Every book on this list is going to be available at any bookstore in America. Shouldn’t I maybe do that instead?

We all know why Amazon is evil, but just for a little refresher, here are some highlights in order of terribleness in my personal opinion:

8. Disappearing Kindle content.

In what everyone has already acknowledge was an ironic turn of events, 1984 and Animal Farm disappeared from Kindles everywhere Friday July 17 2009. The discount ebooks had been posted in violation of U.S. copyright law; Amazon, informed of the issue, made the illegal books disappear and distributed refunds to customers. Everyone was furious, not so much about the loss of their purchases as the overwhelming creep factor involved in the experience. (You’d think this incident would have given Apple some clue that the magically appearing U2 album of September 2014 would be unwelcome.)

7. Marketplace sellers

One of my least-favorite features as an Amazon customer is the difficulty in telling when you’re buying from Amazon, or from some guy in Minnesota who will take two weeks to mail a package and has a totally different return policy. But there’s an actual reason, other than mild-inconvenience, why the trend toward marketplace sellers is problematic. Basically, Amazon has successfully created an environment in which the only way these sellers feel they can survive is by selling through the Amazon platform; the company has found an ingenious way to earn a fee through sales by its direct competitors, further homogenizing everything.

6. Price fixing

Between the anti-Amazon author coalition, the Apple/DOJ settlement, and the rash of Amazon agency-model deals squeezing in before year end, this one can be a bit hard to frame. Is it the big six who have the problem, or Apple, or Amazon–or is it all some massive conspiracy? The general consensus seems to be this: in initial rounds of ebook negotiations back in the early oughts, publishers failed to appreciate the impact and importance of what would become the Kindle. When the deals were done and $9.99 or lower became the standard Amazon price, publishers felt threatened by low (and falling) ebook prices conceived the agency model, which put pricing at publisher’s discretion, rather than retailers’. Amazon argued that a lower price point would lead to bigger sales; the publishers argued that a higher price point reflects value.

5. Censorship.

In 2009, the company was shamed for excluding feminist, gay, and liberal texts from sales rankings. Because those kinds of books don’t count, obviously. Amazon has been known to employ such tactics as removing the ‘buy’ button from all Macmillian titles (2010), or more recently jacking up prices and delaying shipments of Hachette titles (2014) as part of a contract negotiation tussle, infuriating basically every author whose name you know.

4. Taxes

Or lack thereof. Amazon doesn’t pay state and local sales tax, and it passes those savings on to you. And your roads. And your public schools. And your emergency services. The company also avoids taxation internationally, sparking anger in the UKJapanGermany, among others. It’s not that they’re actually breaking laws (except maybe in Japan)…more taking advantage of outdated laws written with normal-sized businesses in mind and some extremely adept lobbying.

3. Differential pricing

That is, charging different customers different amounts based on previous internet traffic and buying patterns.

2. Undercutting indie booksellers

(And even corporate booksellers. Remember back in the day when Barnes and Noble was the bad guy?) Amazon’s business plan has always included strategic low-pricing: in the early days, selling print books below cost and eating shipping fees was designed to increase market share and eliminate brick and mortar competition. The same strategy has persevered in the ebook market, where Amazon beats out the competition by roughly $2.00. Of course, avoiding state and local sales tax probably makes this a lot easier.

1. Labor practices

Amazon fulfillment centers have been described as Industrial Revolution style assembly lines monitored by overseers in charge of of maintaining quotas, who doll out reprimands to workers for things like talking to one another and pausing to catch their breath. The list goes on: per hour quotas that rise in step with length of employment, culminating in eventual firing. Failure to meet expectations, or a clever way to get rid of people who are now entitled to benefits? Searches on entering and leaving the warehouse. Lack of climate control; workers collapsing from heatstroke or working in subzero conditions. Hiring temps, again, in order to skimp on benefits. Union busting.

So: no Amazon. I started to look into alternatives.

The status quo:

Amazon Kindle version is $9.99. I can order it and have it open on my phone in under a minute from anywhere. The same book is also available on my kindle and my home computer, all three of which sync against each other, so I never loose my place. My book is stored in the Amazon cloud, so I can download it again anytime I get a new device and I’m not responsible for maintaining the files myself; it’s also in Amazon’s own proprietary file format, which means its tied to an Amazon device or app. Its not clear what would happen for example, Amazon failed, or started charging a monthly service fee or any one of a dozen other business models. Plus, as previously discussed, there’s the evil.

The alternatives:

Disclaimer: I’m going to ignore the many awesome sites that offer out-of-copyright books (Project Guttenberg) or those that are specially for self-published authors (Smashwords, Lulu); I’m interested in buying a best seller.

iTunes

For those more concerned with issues of format and ownership than buying into a massive corporate machine, there’s always this old standby. Books from the iTunes bookstore are delivered in ePub format, an open ebook standard which you can use across virtually any device except the Kindle. Just like your music, iTunes ebooks are available across a limited number of devices. You, the user, own your file, and you are responsible for backing it up.

Google

Everything I just said about iTunes can be said with equal truth about Google Play ebooks. If you care about the supporting the indies or screwing the man, this is obviously not recommended. To their credit, Google did actually try an indie-driven model, but it didn’t work out. The devious thing about Google is that they know your search history, and, if you’re a Chrome user, they know your Amazon browsing history as well, so your first visit to the Google bookstore will include pretty much exactly what you might expect.

Google books come in a few formats: for those out of copyright, pdf scans or ePubs are the norm. Those for sale from a mainstream press will still be in ePub format, but will have the .ACSM file extension. This is an Adobe software used to keep you from steeling. The price for Bark is an identical $9.99 and like all things Google,  your books live in the cloud, and you don’t have to worry about keeping track of the files.

Barnes & Noble

Everyone knows that B&N’s online bookstore and Kindle-like device, the Nook, aren’t doing so hot, so we can more or less skip this one. For the sake of argument, though, you can get Bark for $11.99 at barnesandnoble.com in ePub format, which you can then read on your Nook. Nook will also read ePub files from other stores, for example, you can transfer books from your Sony reader to your Nook, but it doesn’t go the other way, ie you can’t read Nook books on another reader. Be warned: the end is nigh.

Kobo.

Since it was acquired by the rapidly growing Japanese e-commerce beast Rakuten in 2011, shopping at Kobo really isn’t all that different from shopping at Amazon. Your buying from a company that sells 100 million different items and promises to deliver them all overnight (this is not an exaggeration; its from their Wired profile two years ago). (Incidentally, they also own a big old share of Pintrest–I still haven’t worked out how Pintrest makes money, but all that crap made out of mason jars is looking pretty corporate about now.) Anyway, direct from the Kobo site, Bark in ePub format will cost you $11.99. You can actually get the paperback from the Rakuten website and have it shipped for another fifty cents.

But here’s where it gets interesting. Kobo partners with brick-and-mortar indie bookstores (a full list is available on indiebound.org), allowing them to sell ebooks on their own store sites. I can get that same $11.99 ePub copy from the website of San Francisco’s own Green Apple books–or at first glance, it seems like I can.

A little background on book sales here. Typically, only stores big enough to take advantage of graduated bulk discounting buy direct from publishers, everyone else goes through a book distributor (Ingram or Publishers Group West are big out here in California) who can buy books in enough volume to take advantage of publisher discounts, save small presses the expense of in-house indie sales staff, and sell the books to independent booksellers at a better price than they’d get on their own. The publishing industry also has a bizarre depression-era returns policy which allows booksellers to return unsold books to the publisher for credit. There are some exceptions (magazines and certain mass market paperbacks are not eligible) but generally, if the public doesn’t buy it, it goes back and probably ends up getting pulped. This is why those of us in the publishing industry love it when authors go to bookstores and sign every copy–they can’t be returned!

You might assume your neighborhood books store has the same arrangement with Kobo as with their normal distributor, with a discounted business-to-business price and a similar profit margin, but this is not, in fact, the case. The language is vague here, but you’re not really buying the ebook from the bookstore. They don’t own it, even on a credit returns basis, and they aren’t making normal profits from its sale. Instead, they receive a kickback more akin to the Amazon ‘Smile’ program, or what your grocery store might do to support the local schools: a ‘portion’ of each sale goes to the store you’ve selected, but you’re still buying the book from Kobo, who bought the right to sell it from the publisher.

So, not great. But getting better.

Initial set up is a little worky. You’ll need to add the Kobo Indie App on your ereading device(s) and specify which participating Indie seller you want to receive a little boost from your purchases. Kobo, like Amazon, has a cloud where your activity is stored. You can download your books again; if you loose your files, its going to be okay.

The Public Library

Yes, your friendly neighborhood library has ebooks. If you go there once a decade, you probably already know this.

There are a couple of different ways this can work on the business end of things, depending on the service. In some models, libraries essentially have a subscription to a publisher or distributor’s titles. Often, this arrangement includes a cap on how many ‘copies’ the library can use; alternatively, the library may pay incrementally for whatever their patrons check out over a certain threshold. Many libraries have formed consortiums specifically to take advantage of programs like this, sharing e-resources across several institutions.

For example, Berkeley Public Library subscribes to OverDrive, an ebook distributor who’s subscription-based model allows libraries to create their own digital collections with their own specific numbers of e-copies available. In effect, if one patron has ‘checked out’ the library’s e-Bark, it’s not going to be there for me to check out until they ‘return it’.

In another model, which I’m sure is publisher preferred, the library buys and owns the title, but its only good for a certain number of reads. In imitation of a print book, the ebook version gets artificially worn out over time and must be replaced. This seems to be on its way out, as the restrictions make everyone angry.

Obviously, like all libraries, you have to give your ebook back. Conveniently (if you’ve finished the book; if not, perhaps less so) it will magically vanish from your account when your lending period ends.

Feedbooks

In common with Amazon, Feedbooks is a distribution platform for mainstream titles as well as a publishing platform for indie authored titles. Unlike Amazon, it supports the Creative Commons licensing, and is very much focused on establishing format standards and protocols that will allow for cross platform use.

The search functionality and browsing aren’t nearly on par with what you’d see on a Google Play or an Amazon, but if you know what you’re looking for, getting it is easy.

Compatibility wise, Feedbooks titles are better than most, though still complicated and imperfect. Anything out of copyright can be read on multiple platforms, including Kindle. Copyrighted DRM material (anything you paid for in the store, basically) will not run on Kindle, but will work on devices that read Adobe Digital Editions, and of course there are apps for every device (again, other than Kindle). Bark is available at $11.99. Again, interface is a little rough…there’s no ‘send to’ function, but you can download from more than one device, apparently with no specific limits.

So here it is: my very own digital edition of Lorrie Moore’s Bark, on my very own power guzzling iphone, ready for action.

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.

Kombucha Klub

I celebrated by return to California today by doing the most California thing possible: brewing Kombucha. I got my scooby two weeks ago as part of my office scooby exchange (yes, really), carrying it home on Bart in a mason jar with a paper towel over the top. I’m sure the smell endeared me to the rest of the crowded car fully of rush hour commuters.

I then proceeded to shove the thing in my pantry for two weeks while I went out of town. Surprisingly, this seems not to have mattered.

      

Upon my return I did exactly what you’re not supposed to do when moving between time zones: took two Advil, drank a pint of water, and collapsed into bed at 6:00 P.M., where I remained for roughly 14 hours.

I woke up in the morning feeling just rehabilitated enough to make my house habitable again. I bought groceries, mopped the floor, vacuumed (incidentally, I bought an informercial vacuum on impulse right before leaving on my trip), did laundry, paid bills, and generally behaved the way I imagine a responsible adult who has to be at work by 8:00 on Monday probably should behave. One of the to-dos on my list, in between buying toothpaste and writing an angry letter to United airlines (postponed to tomorrow), was to rescue my poor scooby.

I chose the first recipe in the Google results. I have yet to read it to the end.

I had no black tea in the house due to my level of caffeine consumption as I tried to prepare my graduate project before leaving. I drank all my coffee, all my tea, and even these little packets of Starbucks instant coffee my mom gave me two Christmases ago. Ugh. So, I decided to use Spicely hibiscus.

I like the idea of herbal tea more than I actually like drinking herbal tea. I tend to buy it in batches of four or five boxes at beginning of a health kick, usually in an effort to fool myself into drinking more water. I’m especially guilty of buying and saving boxes of Spicely teas, because I really enjoy going to the store. Its maybe a mile from my office, just down from Montgomery Bart, and it sells only three things: spices, tea, and chocolate. Two of these things are available for sampling. They even pair the teas and chocolates, a conceit which I’m pretty sure is absolute nonsense, but which I really enjoy. They have these little adorable shopping baskets, and the women working there will tell you which teas are good for which ailments, and in general going there is a great relief from being in downtown San Francisco.

The hibiscus tea instead of black was my first departure from the recipe.

Of course, I’d forgotten that I bought a box of PG Tips for my office, so in fact I had plenty of black tea all along…oh well.

After I reminded myself how many cups are in 3 1/2 quarts, I boiled the water, stirred in two heaping tablespoons of tea, and a cup of white sugar. The tea steeps in the pot until cool enough to be transferred to some kind of glass or plastic receptacle. The main thing is not to put anything as close to vinegar as Kombucha in something made of metal. I used to giant mason jar, because even though the Kombucha has to stay in the dark while it brews, for some reason I like making it pretty. Fine.

Once the tea is really room temperature, you add two cups of tea from a previous batch (this is your starter), followed by the scooby itself.

Here, I wandered from the recipe again. My jar was not large enough to hold all the tea, so I dumped all my rice into a tupperware, washed out that jar, and started a second batch. I’d already dumped all the starter into the first jar, so I just poured some of that, along with the extra sugary tea, into the second jar. Then I started to worry that the tea was still too hot, so I waited a while longer before sliding the scooby in.

Sometime during the two weeks I’d been away, my scooby developed a friend, so I put one in each jar, covering one with cheese cloth, the other with paper towel, and placed both in the pantry, where they will remain for the next 7 – 10 days. Here’s hoping this doesn’t end up giving me a weird infection or making me blind or something.

 

Kombucha Klub

I celebrated by return to California today by doing the most California thing possible: brewing Kombucha. I got my scooby two weeks ago as part of my office scooby exchange (yes, really), carrying it home on Bart in a mason jar with a paper towel over the top. I’m sure the smell endeared me to the rest of the crowded car fully of rush hour commuters.

I then proceeded to shove the thing in my pantry for two weeks while I went out of town. Surprisingly, this seems not to have mattered.


Kombucha

Kombucha

Upon my return I did exactly what you’re not supposed to do when moving between time zones: took two Advil, drank a pint of water, and collapsed into bed at 6:00 P.M., where I remained for roughly 14 hours.

I woke up in the morning feeling just rehabilitated enough to make my house habitable again. I bought groceries, mopped the floor, vacuumed (incidentally, I bought an informercial vacuum on impulse right before leaving on my trip), did laundry, paid bills, and generally behaved the way I imagine a responsible adult who has to be at work by 8:00 on Monday probably should behave. One of the to-dos on my list, in between buying toothpaste and writing an angry letter to United airlines (postponed to tomorrow), was to rescue my poor scooby.

I chose the first recipe in the Google results. I have yet to read it to the end.

I had no black tea in the house due to my level of caffeine consumption as I tried to prepare my graduate project before leaving. I drank all my coffee, all my tea, and even these little packets of Starbucks instant coffee my mom gave me two Christmases ago. Ugh. So, I decided to use Spicely hibiscus.

I like the idea of herbal tea more than I actually like drinking herbal tea. I tend to buy it in batches of four or five boxes at beginning of a health kick, usually in an effort to fool myself into drinking more water. I’m especially guilty of buying and saving boxes of Spicely teas, because I really enjoy going to the store. Its maybe a mile from my office, just down from Montgomery Bart, and it sells only three things: spices, tea, and chocolate. Two of these things are available for sampling. They even pair the teas and chocolates, a conceit which I’m pretty sure is absolute nonsense, but which I really enjoy. They have these little adorable shopping baskets, and the women working there will tell you which teas are good for which ailments, and in general going there is a great relief from being in downtown San Francisco.

Hibiscus tea

Hibiscus tea

The hibiscus tea instead of black was my first departure from the recipe.

Of course, I’d forgotten that I bought a box of PG Tips for my office, so in fact I had plenty of black tea all along…oh well.

Kombucha Tea

After I reminded myself how many cups are in 3 1/2 quarts, I boiled the water, stirred in two heaping tablespoons of tea, and a cup of white sugar. The tea steeps in the pot until cool enough to be transferred to some kind of glass or plastic receptacle. The main thing is not to put anything as close to vinegar as Kombucha in something made of metal. I used to giant mason jar, because even though the Kombucha has to stay in the dark while it brews, for some reason I like making it pretty. Fine.

Once the tea is really room temperature, you add two cups of tea from a previous batch (this is your starter), followed by the scooby itself.

Here, I wandered from the recipe again. My jar was not large enough to hold all the tea, so I dumped all my rice into a tupperware, washed out that jar, and started a second batch. I’d already dumped all the starter into the first jar, so I just poured some of that, along with the extra sugary tea, into the second jar. Then I started to worry that the tea was still too hot, so I waited a while longer before sliding the scooby in.

Sometime during the two weeks I’d been away, my scooby developed a friend, so I put one in each jar, covering one with cheese cloth, the other with paper towel, and placed both in the pantry, where they will remain for the next 7 – 10 days. Here’s hoping this doesn’t end up giving me a weird infection or making me blind or something.

Kombucha

Kombucha