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The Goldfinch: Book Review

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Lesser Goldfinch

Lesser Goldfinch (Photo credit: Images by John ‘K’)

 

The Goldfinch
Donna Tartt
Winner, Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2014

Spoilers ahead.

 

“To write a novel this large and dense…is equivalent to sailing from America to Ireland in a rowboat, a job both lonely and exhausting…—Stephen King, reviewing The Goldfinch in The Guardian

If reading fiction is an escape from reality, I’m having trouble with re-entry. It’s been over a week since I finished The Goldfinch, yet it’s still one of the first things I think of in the morning and return to several times during the day. Somewhere around page two or three hundred I took up residence in the world created by Donna Tartt, and I’ve yet to move out. (“…with very great paintings it’s possible to know them deeply, inhabit them almost…” —from The Goldfinch.)

The Goldfinch however, is no escape: it thrusts us into the awareness, always just beneath the surface, that the only way out of our troubled lives is death, a truth most of us tend to avoid. When forced to face it, our reactions can range from depression to terror to thoughts of suicide (as in might as well get it over with). I don’t know if this was Tartt’s intention, but it was, at least for me, the novel’s ultimate statement. Not that she doesn’t offer glimmers of joy and hope along the way, particularly in her long summary-like ending: but the dark side decidedly overpowers the light.

A plot-driven novel, The Goldfinch is full of twists and turns and moments of heightened suspense. Unlike most plot-driven books (see John Grisham, James Patterson, Nora Roberts, et al), in which the action is fueled by stereotypical cardboard characters, The Goldfinch is populated by multi-dimensional  human beings: Theo, the narrator around whom all others spin; Boris, his chief sidekick, dragged all over the world by his abusive businessman father; Pippa, the girl Theo falls in love with moments before a bomb goes off in the New York Metropolitan Museum, setting the plot in motion; and dozens more. I can still vividly picture every one of these characters, though Tartt, thankfully, allows readers to fill in most of our own visuals—which is odd, considering she’s so heavy on other kinds of description.

As both a reader and writer I’ve never been that interested in description, whether of city streets or country roads, lavish mansions or run-down hovels. Thus, Tartt’s long, elaborate word paintings of whatever’s going on while what’s really going on goes on annoyed the hell out of me—that is, for the first hundred pages or so, until I fully surrendered.The plot is so engaging that I’d impatiently scan the page (or rather Kindle screen), my nerves twitching with the feeling of Come on, get to the story already! For instance, just as Boris is about to tell Theo (and us) what’s become of the treasured painting at the center of the plot, Tartt leaves the conversation momentarily to let us know what’s showing on the TV set in the bar. She’s also big on that famous plot device, the flashback: after the explosion, when Theo crawls through a collapsed passageway seeking an exit, Tartt flashes back to a time when he was stuck in another tight space. Sometimes she even writes a flashback within a flashback.

At such moments I became distracted and annoyed, and read as quickly as possible to get past what I saw as “extra”s…but then a funny thing happened on my way back to “the story”: I began to notice that my impatience was similar to what happens during suspenseful passages; Tartt’s long flights of description left me literally suspended. I was desperate to know what would happen next: I had to turn the pages. Eureka! Are these literary devices—the descriptions, the flashbacks—purposeful techniques employed precisely to create suspense? Is her deftness with these methods partly what makes the book so compelling? Perhaps. No, more than perhaps: probably. It’s worth noting that The Goldfinch is only Donna Tartt’s third published novel, and that she spent eleven years writing it. At a time when would-be authors attend workshops on “How to Write A Bestseller in a Weekend” and toss off a book in six months’ time, Donna Tartt is holding down the fort of literary excellence.

 

 

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Nowhere Boy: Film Review

movie posterNow I know why I’ve always disliked the song “Julia”—the only Beatles song, other than the misogynist “Run For Your Life”—that I’ve ever said that about. It’s so dirge-like and mournful, so different from their usual upbeat fare, including their ballads. Having just seen Nowhere Boy, the story of John Lennon and his two mothers (Mother Julia and Aunt Mimi), I know why the song is such a downer: it is in fact a dirge, a kind of epitaph for the woman who gave birth to John and cared for him until he was five, when Mimi took and raised him.  Nowhere Boy brilliantly takes a slice of John’s life, short in duration but deeply significant, to create a film that encapsulates almost everything we  need to know about Lennon to understand the man and his music.

–MILD SPOILERS AHEAD–

The movie opens with John as a 16-year-old madly in love with American rock ‘n’ roll, but with no musical knowledge or training.  Through a series of events he comes in contact with his mother, Julia, who he hasn’t seen since he was five. At that time his father tried to take him from her, planning to drag him off to New Zealand. Julia passively let him go, but her sister Mimi grabbed him from his father and, with her husband, raised him.

Mum is now remarried with two daughters, and thrilled to see her long-lost son—who lived right around the block from her! Julia’s a lively gal, and behaves more like John’s girlfriend than his mum in every gesture and act, but this is never commented upon in any way by anyone. Julia’s husband doesn’t want John hanging around so much; apparently Julia’s prone to breakdowns, and he thinks she can’t handle it. And Mimi–well! It’s the age-old story of the sensible devoted woman who fed, washed and looked after John all these years being shoved aside for the flighty beauty who abandoned him.

Unfortunately, the story went a little differently, according to Julia Lennon’s bio in Wikipedia, than this cinematic portrayal; actually, not a little but quite a lot: “After complaints to Liverpool’s Social Services by her eldest sister, Mimi Smith (née Stanley), she handed over the care of her son to her sister. ” Additionally,  Julia saw John almost every day, and by the time he was eleven (and not, as the film tells us, 17) he was frequently staying overnight at her house. Having read the story after seeing the movie, I can’t help but question its point-of-view entirely.

One place where history and art agree, however, is that Julia influenced John’s development as a musician. In the movie she hands John a mandolin and teaches him to strum (“think Bo Diddley, she says”) and she’s always singing and dancing with him. “Why can’t I be Elvis?” he moans, and Julia replies, “Because the world is waiting for you to be John Lennon.” That quote is just too beautiful to complain about, even if the screenwriters made it up.

AaronTaylorJohnsonWhile John and Julia are getting to know each other John forms a band, begins performing, and meets Paul McCartney.  Thomas SangsterPossibly the best thing about Nowhere Boy, at least to my pure delight, is the casting for John and Paul: respectively, Aaron Johnson and Thomas Brodie Sangster. Each of them slips into his persona so effectively that after awhile they begin to look like the originals—and it couldn’t have been easy, psychologically, to play a pair of beloved icons for an audience mostly familiar with them. Their relationship is portrayed from the start as a rivalry, but I don’t know if the filmmakers were being faithful to reality or merely to legend.

The end of the movie is a matter of historical record, but if you don’t know it and don’t want to, stop reading. I didn’t know it, and was stunned when Julia got hit by a car and died.  When the movie was over, the song “Julia” kept slogging relentlessly around in my head on its endless loop of grief, and I had to play it—only to find that, knowing what I do now, I no longer hate it at all.Paul

JohnLennon-NYC

Endings: Breaking Bad: Spoilers

Walt & Jesse

MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD! STOP NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS AT THE END OF BREAKING BAD!

We could probably count on the fingers of one hand how many long-running TV shows ended in a way that we found satisfying. Seinfeld comes to mind. M.A.S.H. Nothing else at the moment, though I’m sure there must be more, if few and far between. I mean, remember The Sopranos? Thus, when a show does deliver the goods in that last crucial episode, after flawlessly leading up to it with four or five intense programs, it seems like quite an achievement.

The ending of Breaking Bad left me completely, and fully satisfied. I’m not wondering what happened to this character or where did that one go, or why did that idiot do what he did. My one and only complaint is that Hank died, but since Jesse was allowed to live I guess I can forgive Vince Gilligan and Company. Besides, the sacrifice of Hank‘s character was integral to what followed.

Hank and Jesse were the only characters I really liked on BB….and maybe the eccentric lawyer Sol, who made a clean getaway, even if he is stuck in Omaha flipping burgers. Everyone else was either psycho—I loved it when Jesse called Todd and Jack’s gang a bunch of psycho fucks—or whining nags like Skyler and

Betsy Brandt as Marie Shrader (Photo: Imdb)

Betsy Brandt as Marie Shrader (Photo: Imdb)

son Flynn; good god, how those two worked my last nerve! Marie was no prize either, though in the final episode Betsy Brandt finally did some real acting.

Aside from the main climactic events, there were a few elegant touches executed only the way BB can do these things: for instance, the gun-on-a-turntable Walter rigs up to give those psycho fucks what they so richly deserved. The creation of that gadget brought us full circle in terms of Walter’s character, as he harkens back to the genius chemistry teacher we were introduced to in 2008. While he was setting up this contraption, I hadn’t a clue WTF he was going to do with it, and completely forgot it even existed…until the moment when Walt pushed the button that swung open the trunk of his car. Out came Robo-Gun, spinning like the turntable of a record player, firing off bullets instead of doo-wop. Within a few minutes, maybe even less, every psycho fuck but Todd and Jack lay dead and bleeding on the floor. Jesse got the gratification of choking Todd, the sociopath who physically tortured him, while Walt cut short Jack’s last drag on a cigarette the old-fashioned way, with a manual blast to the head.

By the time the cops arrived Walter was dead. Jesse refused to kill him for about the hundredth time in their complex father-son relationship, but it turned out he was shot by his own invention. No doubt he knew it might happen—but Walt’s been living on borrowed time already, and probably preferred to die now rather than endure a trial and prison, only to die of cancer during or shortly thereafter.

Anna Gunn as Skyler White (Photo: Imdb)

Anna Gunn as Skyler White (Photo: Imdb)

At least Walt made his confession before dying. Earlier he goes to see Skyler and begins by saying “Everything I did…” but she cuts him off, a great relief to her and to me, who could not bear one more bullshit declaration that he cooked meth and killed people “for my family,” the word so weighted in this context I could vomit. But Walt surprises her, and us: he tells the truth this time. “I liked it,” he said. “I was good at it. I felt alive.” It’s not like we didn’t know it, but still, I wanted to applaud: the guy came to terms before meeting his maker, if that is indeed what’s in store for him (and the rest of us).

Satisfying ending or not, saying farewell, even to characters I loathed, is just too sad.  The older I get the more I lose, and the more I see that’s one of  life’s big lessons. It’s why the Buddhists practice non-attachment: “When you ain’t got nothing you got nothin’ to lose.” But if I cry every time a show I love ends, imagine what it’s like when I lose real people or things. I don’t have to imagine…it’s happened enough already. Focussing some of life’s sadness on a show I loved is convenient. Satisfying.

Goodbye Heisenberg, you psycho fuck!

Bryan Cranston as Walter White (Photo: Imdb)

Bryan Cranston as Walter White (Photo: Imdb)

The Before Trilogy: Review

English: Ethan Hawke at the 2007 Toronto Inter...

English: Ethan Hawke at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cover of "Before Sunrise"

Cover of Before Sunrise

Before Sunrise
Before Sunset
Before Midnight
starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy

As series go, the “Before‘s” aren’t half bad. I’ll even go so far as to say that, as entertainment, they’re two-thirds great: Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are quite compelling. Each could stand alone, but why make them do that when viewing without pause a six-hour saga spanning half a lifetime is so much fun? That’s the joy of rentals, I’ve discovered: watching an entire season of Homeland or Breaking Bad over the course of a few days is so much more satisfying than weekly viewings dragged out over several years.

The plot of the Before trilogy sounds on the surface deceptively simple: boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy gets girl. In Before Sunrise, Jesse, an American played by Ethan Hawke, meets the French Celine (Julie Delpy) on a train speeding through Europe the night before he’s heading home. His plane leaves from Vienna in the morning, and when the train reaches his station he spontaneously asks Celine to get off and spend the night with him. This is not an indecent proposal, since he has no money for a hotel and plans to roam the city streets all night. After a beat or two she says yes—oh, to be young, for only the young take such risks! And hey, if she hadn’t gone, look what they, and we the audience, would have missed.

Parting is such sweet sorrow: after a night communing with Vienna and each other, they agree to meet in the same place in six months’ time to see if they still feel connected. As the sun rises, the first movie ends, leaving the audience suspended.Before Sunset

The second film, Before Sunset opens with Jesse hawking the novel he wrote based on what happened before sunrise. He’s in Paris giving a reading—as if! First-time novelists are rarely if ever whisked by their publishers on worldwide publicity tours accompanied by their own personal limo driver. Maybe this occasionally happened in, say, 1948, but certainly not  in the 90s when the movie takes place. That’s just one of the ways in which the Before‘s get the writing life wrong: in other scenes Jesse tells anyone he happens to meet the entire plot of his next as yet unwritten novel, a sure sign of the rank amateur.

Caveat, Jesse: Talking about an unwritten book guarantees you won’t write it. That’s not some superstition, either: when you talk out the story you dissipate the creative energy needed to write it. If you tell it first, by the time you get to a blank page, the story’s gone stale, and you have nothing left to say.

The first two Before‘s cover the most exciting phases in a relationship: meeting, anticipating, getting-to-know-you, and testing reality. No matter how many times it’s been told, these remain engaging; thus, the first two Before‘s cannot fail. Well, maybe they can, but they don’t.

Before MidnightThe trouble with Part The Third is a lack of conflict, at least for the first half. As any writing teacher will tell you, without obstacles there’s no story, especially no love story. Before Midnight opens on an almost ideal relationship. Only later, when the couple go off alone, away from their kids and their friends, does the plot thicken with a blowout. Here comes conflict in spades; the problem is that Jesse and Celine—mostly Celine, true to life—raise just about every issue you’d expect to be a source of strife in a contemporary relationship. I could have recited verbatim this part of the script, in which today’s couple conflicts are explored ad nauseum—which is predictably tedious. I may be wrong: perhaps if I were 35, married, and afraid my husband planned to haul my ass out of Paris to live in Chicago…well, then, sure, I’d relate to Before Midnight the way I related to  Diary of a Mad Housewife in 1970. At that movie I sobbed my heart out : the protagonist’s story mirrored my own.  Thus, I can see how a good portion of today’s audiences related to and loved Before Midnight.

I could write an entire blog, if not a whole book, on another aspect of the third movie: Celine as a mother. For most of the film the

couple’s two daughters are invisible, either off playing somewhere, or asleep, or left with friends while the duo runs off for a romantic interlude. I couldn’t help but notice this, since every time I’ve created a fictional character who’s a mother, editors and agents have demanded I devote more time to the kids even when they have nothing to do with the story. I’ve been told that if I don’t, readers will dislike the main character: she’s seen as a Bad Mother. (As I said, it’s a whole separate blog I hope to get to someday.)

Of course, I didn’t lose sympathy for Celine—but then, I wouldn’t. I wonder about other viewers; after all, it’s clear that Celine’s career is a more important part of her life than motherhood. In Before Midnight, though, this somehow seems natural. A sign of changing times? French sensibility? Or is Celine just an unusual woman?

Julie DelpyJulie Delpy’s performance improves by leaps and bounds during the course of the trilogy.  In the first two movies she’s an okay actress—but it’s in the latest installment that she really blossoms. Maybe it’s just because here she gets to play anger; whatever the reason, her acting chops have clearly evolved.   It brings to mind the cliché that women reach their prime in their mid-thirties—only it isn’t such a cliché: in Before Midnight Julie the actress and Celine the character seem to have reached the peak of their powers. Celine’s career is about to take a great leap forward, and by movie’s end I fervently hoped Jesse wouldn’t drag her off to Chicago to waste the best years of her life.

We may never know—unless, that is, a fourth sequel is on the way.

House of Mirth: Book Review

 

PROCEED WITH CAUTION—MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD

House of Mirth cover The night after I finished reading The House of Mirth I woke up several times and remembered with a pang that Lily Bart, the main character, had died. Though the woman was but a figment of Edith Wharton’s imagination, still I cried for her. I honestly cannot remember when a novel has affected me quite so deeply, but The House of Mirth packs a wallop, especially when you consider it was written in 1905, over 100 years ago; except for surface details and social mannerisms it could have been written today. To this I can attest: Lily Bart—c’est moi! I make this claim as a woman who, like Lily, began adult life from the privileged place of the upper middle-class, clueless about the machinations of money, unprepared for a journey of downward mobility that slammed me against the wall more times than I care to count. Like Lily I knew nothing about money—how to get it, how not to spend it, and the consequences of this ignorance. Unlike Lily, however, my social milieu provided plenty of information on chemical accessories, thus saving me from her method of self-annihilation.

Lily Bart is a great beauty (here she and I again part company) born and bred to be ornamental—she lights up the rooms of the rich and decorates the great halls of art and culture whenever she graces them with her presence. Lily understands this role, as well as her obligations as an object of beauty, and in return she expects to be taken care of in the style to which she is accustomed. Not only has Lily never been taught self-sufficiency, she received no intimation that she might have to learn. With this calamity never even imagined, Lily drifts through high society, pleasing others and beautifying her surroundings. Until she doesn’t—and therein lies a tale.

from the film

from the film

A series of almost trivial events are set in motion that cause Lily’s wealthy friends to snub her, until eventually she’s cast out of their gilded circles. These so-called friends treat her abominably: a woman alone is particularly vulnerable to becoming the scapegoat in other people’s dramas. Thus, a manipulative “friend” sets her up as wrongdoer to deflect blame from the actual culprit in her marital strife, i.e., herself. Rumors about Lily’s alleged part in this melodrama spread

Lily Bart in film version

Lily Bart in film version

before she can defend herself. Real disaster hits when her aunt, believing the rumors, disinherits her and with exquisitely bad timing dies almost immediately afterwards, leaving Lily with barely enough income to survive, much less enjoy her usual high lifestyle. And yet, when Lily comes into possession of some incriminating letters that could be used to restore her good name, she inexplicably rejects the opportunity to save herself. While this gives her integrity, I found  her reluctance to sink so low frustrating under the circumstances.  Lily was so badly treated, and the people around her so despicable, I thought she had every right to bring them down by any means necessary.

It occurred to me that perhaps Wharton meant for the reader to see Lily as a spoiled brat deserving of  her tribulations–but if this is what Wharton intended, she failed, at least with this reader. I rooted for Lily from beginning to end, and wished she would dump New York society into the Hudson River. In case I haven’t made it abundantly clear, I strongly identified with Lily as a single woman living by her wits alone.

Unfortunately she doesn’t dump high society; they dump her, and Lily’s circumstances continue the downward spiral, until she’s living “the boarding-house life” of single working women at the turn of the 20th century in New York. Alone, poor and lonely, she meets the challenge with a valiant attempt at honest labor in the milliners’ trade. With an instinct for charming design, Lily has always thought herself adept at hat trimming —but she soon discovers there’s more drudgery in millinery work than she ever imagined. The hats Lily produces are devastatingly inferior to those done by the ordinary girls working next to her. Failing dismally at a simple trade makes Lily even more despondent, and as each pathway systematically closes off to her, the reader senses we’re heading towards a very bad, sad ending.

images-2The House of Mirth contains many elements of any contemporary woman’s story, and could have been written in 1780 or 1968 or 2013. This serves to remind us that the unfair disadvantages of women’s lives have been operational since Day One and continue to the present. The economic system we in the U.S. live by forces women into marriage whether we want it or not.  The patriarchy is organized in such a way that what women can do in life is limited by its unwritten rules and regulations. No matter which segment of society a woman travels among—the rich, the unconventional, the artistic, the poor—all are governed by an invisible machine that benefits men and oppresses women.

In Lily Bart’s existence Edith Wharton—herself a member of the upper crust—captured the lives of millions of women, not only of her own time but throughout history. And material deprivation isn’t even the worst of it. Writes Wharton:

She had a sense of deeper empoverishment—of an inner destitution…It was indeed miserable to be poor—to look forward to a shabby, anxious middle-age, leading by dreary degrees of economy and self-denial to gradual absorption in the dingy communal existence of the boarding-house. But there was something more miserable still—it was the clutch of solitude at her heart, the sense of being swept like a stray uprooted growth down the heedless current of the years.

This is only the second Wharton novel I’ve read (the first was The Age of Innocence). Unlike Jane Austen with her little pile of eight novels, Edith Wharton wrote 31. Lucky lucky me!